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ss nucleus - spring 2008,  University Christian groups and the law

University Christian groups and the law

Tim Grainger suggests a godly response. Please note that nothing in this article should be taken to amount to legal advice, and views expressed are the author's.

The academic world is a microcosm of society outside, seemingly without the same restrictions. It allows students to thrive on debate and formulate new ideas. But Christians of all academic disciplines are facing an increasingly belligerent culture of relativism. Absolute truth has been dismissed, almost absolutely. As such, students, professing Christ as being the only way to the Father, are branded as narrow-minded fundamentalists.

University life is a challenge for the Christian student, but it is ultimately an opportunity to develop one's faith through fellowship with other Christians, sitting under the teaching of God's Word. Or rather it should be. The question of how and when Christians should invoke the law to defend their freedom is not straightforward. Those waters can often be muddied without a clear biblical perspective and compassion.

In this brief article, I would firstly like to address the legal issues arising from Christian student groups meeting at universities. These groups can encompass CMF groups, Lawyers' Christian Fellowship (LCF) groups, or Christian Unions (CUs) in general. Secondly, I would like to think about how the individual medical student can act in a wise and godly way in light of the law, understanding that we are subject to a much higher law.

recent case studies

What are the legal issues arising when the policies and beliefs of Christian student groups are at odds with student unions? It is helpful to highlight a few case studies from recent years by way of context.

In October 2005, one student at Exeter University wrote a letter to the Guild of Students to state he believed that the CU was not representative of all the Christian students there. He did not feel that he could sign the doctrinal basis that all members are required to sign. This statement would be uncontroversial to most Christians, including such crucial theological principles as the Trinity, the lordship of Christ and his incarnation, death and resurrection in atonement for our sins.

In 2006, the CU was forced to change its name to the Evangelical Christian Union, to demonstrate its 'radical' nature; it was also suspended from the Guild for contravening a hastily drafted University Equal Opportunities Policy. The Christian Union lost all the privileges associated with Guild membership, including the use of university facilities such as meeting rooms.

Around the same time, the CU at Edinburgh University was seeking to run the Pure course [1] on campus. This advocates biblical teaching on sex and relationships, and it specifically teaches chastity until marriage. Gay rights groups within the university described the course as 'homophobic' and called for it to be banned. This comment emanated from a very small section of the course, which states that the Bible clearly teaches that the practice of homosexuality is a sin. The university authorities banned the CU from teaching the course on university facilities, seemingly because it was contrary to the university Equality and Diversity Policy.

A contrary problem arose with the CMF group at Bart's Hospital in London. Bart's has the historic position of preventing any religious or political societies from affiliating to the student union. This had significantly limited the activity of the CMF group on campus. CMF students at Bart's, backed by the prayers and support of CMF staff and members successfully secured a policy change to allow them to operate freely on campus.

is the law on our side?

In these case studies, the question clearly arises, is the law on their side? Can Christian student groups across the country find solace in legal protections afforded to them? Although the detailed law on this subject is an emerging field, the answer is invariably, yes. The European Convention can be invoked on the grounds of section 6(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998 which effectively states that any 'public authority' is bound by the Convention. A 'public authority' is defined by section 6(3) as any authority whose 'functions are of a public nature'. Clearly this will include a university, or academic institution. On that basis, Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) could be argued in each case. It could be argued that Christian groups have rights to freedom of religion, expression and association.

The concept of freedom of religion is a quintessential right of citizenship, as recognised by Article 9 of the ECHR. As such there has been substantial case law on this topic. This issue was addressed in Kokkinakis v Greece, [2] where it was stated:

Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is one of the foundations of a democratic society…one of the most vital elements that go to make up the identity of believers and of their conception of life…while religious freedom is primarily a matter of individual conscience… Bearing witness in words and deeds is bound up with the existence of religious convictions…

The right to freedom of expression in Article 10 sits very closely with freedom of religion. In the case of R v Central Television Plc, [3] Lord Justice Hoffman observed:

Freedom means…the right to say things which 'right-thinking' people regard as dangerous or irresponsible. This freedom is subject only to clearly defined exceptions laid down by common law or statute…It cannot be too strongly emphasised that outside the established exceptions…there is no question of balancing freedom of speech against other interests. It is a trump card which always wins.

In the recent case of Ken Livingstone v The Adjudication Panel for England, [4] where Mr Livingstone had allegedly made politically inappropriate comments, it was stated:

…However offensive and undeserving of protection the appellant's outburst may have appeared to some, it is important that any individual knows that he can say what he likes, provided it is not unlawful…

Article 11 of the ECHR protects the right of a group to associate, to meet together freely without the imposition of restrictions unless such restrictions are 'necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety'. Once again, this concept of a group of like-minded individuals being able to meet freely is one of the cornerstones of democracy. A further legal tool that can be used in these cases is the over-arching freedom of speech guarantee in Section 43 of the Education Act (No 2) 1986. This section sets out that a body or authority, such as a university, should guarantee freedom of speech, within the law, for all its members.

In summary, any Christian student group should be permitted to associate freely, and express their belief through the 'golden thread' democratic guarantee of free speech. The law does therefore provide safeguards for groups finding themselves in opposition with their authorities.

what does this mean in practice?

Guidelines for Students' Unions and CUs were agreed between the National Union of Students and the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship, in September 2007. [5] Some of the main points include the following:

  • Faith based societies should be permitted to express their faith through a set of doctrines and beliefs set out in a constitution.
  • In principle, every faith-based society should have the right to adopt a name which they believe best expresses their own identity.
  • There is an assumption that students joining a society support its aims and objectives as outlined in the constitution.
  • Leadership of a faith based society may be restricted to members of the society.
  • The 1994 Education Act requires that there should be fair and equal access to publicity, premises and financial support from the Students' Union.

These guidelines are hugely helpful and could go a long way towards settling potential disputes, hopefully before they escalate.

acting in a godly way

How then can individual medical students act in a godly way in the light of the law? We are instructed to submit to those in authority over us. [6,7] Every institution and ruler has been put in place by God. As such, every ruler and institution will be answerable to God for how they have used that authority.

How then does this square with Christian groups seeking rights recognition? Firstly, when the suppression of the gospel is the issue, Christians must not be silent. There are some matters that we can compromise on, but the gospel is not negotiable. Secondly, we should not be afraid of using legal 'tools' to advance the gospel. The apostle Paul consistently used his 'rights' as a Roman citizen to further the cause of the gospel. [8]

We need not be defensive about forwarding human rights arguments. Arguably, the only clear understanding of a need for human rights stems from a Christian worldview. We are created in God's image;9 any rights attributed to us are derivative from our Heavenly Father. However, these rights are necessarily part of secular law, as a result of our fallen nature. The founders of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights did not have in mind 'selfish' rights, but rights that needed to be shouted from the rooftops after two world wars and a long history of bloodshed. These include the right to life and the dignity that flows from this right. Let us not forget however, that with rights come responsibilities. Without God, 'rights' have no ethical roadmap. Understanding God's character and desire for justice helps us to understand why we must speak on behalf of the silent and when we apply God's standards to this world, we can begin to understand the nature of such a roadmap.

From a Christian perspective, the law is a blessing and not a burden as we live under grace and not law. However, the Old Testament Law provides a reflection of God's perfect standards, having the dual purpose of pointing to the need for Jesus, and restoring relationships. As such, these laws could be described as 'righteous laws'. The secular law can often be a dim reflection of these, but it is often good and healthy, and the law in the UK has its anchors in biblical principles. The secular law exists to protect us from ourselves and from each other. It is imperfect; it does not point to God in the way the Old Testament Law does, but it does seek to address the earthly needs of a society fractured by the fall. God's law is the ultimate blessing as it very clearly points to our sinfulness and need for Jesus who fulfilled the law perfectly, completely and once for all time. [10]

There may come a time in our generation when we need to be even more vocal to ensure that the gospel can be preached. In Nazi Germany, Martin Niemoller refused to practise 'quietism', and he continued to preach the gospel. There will be times to 'fight' and other times to 'back down'. As a Christian medical student, your integrity and diligence in work and study will speak volumes of the higher law which you are subject to. Refusing to 'cut corners' and speaking out for that bullied colleague or friend, will do what the Old Testament Law does, point to Jesus. Indeed, every tenet of our lives should whisper 'Jesus'. Collectively, whilst we have freedom to express our faith, let us exercise that right, encourage each other and preach the gospel.

Lawyers' Christian Fellowship

The mission of the Lawyers' Christian Fellowship (LCF) is to influence lawyers and the law for Christ. Founded in 1852, LCF has a long history of uniting and equipping Christian lawyers and witnessing to members of the legal profession. LCF seeks to impact both individual lives and the wider legal landscape through an uncompromising commitment to the Bible's teaching. Today LCF has an expanding membership of more than 2,000 Christian lawyers, with a network of graduate and student groups spanning Britain, and international links which are particularly strong in East Africa. See
  2. European Court of Human Rights Reports 1993;17:397
  3. All England Law Reports 1994;3:641
  4. Case report from High Court (Administrative Court branch) 2006, page 2533
  6. Rom 13:1
  7. 1 Pet 2:13-17
  8. Acts 16:37
  9. Gn 1:26,27
  10. Mt 5:17-20
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