Balliol JCR prevented Christian Union (CU) representatives from attending its college freshers’ fair, a leaked email chain seen by Cherwell reveals.
The JCR committee initially attempted to prevent any CU representation whatsoever, stating that it wanted the freshers’ fair to be a “secular space” as it “couldn’t guarantee every major belief system” would be represented, which risked “alienating” new students.
Following discussions between the CU and the JCR Vice President Freddy Potts, permission for a single multifaith stall was granted, but only on the condition that it had no representative of any society manning it. This meant that no member of any religious society was able to exhibit at the fair or speak to freshers.
While JCR President Hubert Au stated that this conclusion had been reached through discussions with the JCR Welfare subcommittee and the college CU, his comments were described as “misleading” by a CU representative.
The ban has led to a backlash within Balliol, with a JCR motion passed unanimously tonight accusing the JCR of “barring the participation of specific faith-based organizations” and describing the step as “a violation of free speech [and] a violation of religious freedom”.
It states: “the Balliol JCR should not make judgements regarding the legitimacy of faith groups or religious expression.”
The motion prohibits the JCR from barring any official religious societies from participation in the Balliol freshers’ fair in future.
During the initial email exchange, JCR Vice President Freddy Potts, on behalf of the JCR Welfare Subcommittee, justified the ban by telling a CU representative: “We recognise the wonderful advantages in having CU representatives at the Fresher’s Fair, but are concerned that there is potential for harm to freshers who are already struggling to feel welcome in Oxford.”
He added: “Our sole concern is that the presence of the CU alone may alienate incoming students. This sort of alienation or micro-aggression is regularly dismissed as not important enough to report, especially when there is little to no indication that other students or committee members may empathise, and inevitably leads to further harm of the already most vulnerable and marginalised groups.
“Historically, Christianity’s influence on many marginalised communities has been damaging in its methods of conversion and rules of practice, and is still used in many places as an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism.”
The CU representative replied that they were “not sure that it was appropriate or relevant for the JCR Committee to point this out in a discussion about Balliol CU; in the same way this would be inappropriate in conversion with many other faith groups”.
According to a Facebook post by JCR President Hubert Au, a single multifaith stall did ultimately go ahead with “representation” from four separate Christian groups. It is understood that as a result of the ban the Balliol CU refused to attend the fair or license any material distributed on behalf of the CU.
Au said: “Ultimately, it was reached to have a multifaith stall rather than a CU stall specifically, in light of both concerns raised by members Welfare Sub and by an undergraduate survey conducted last term which indicated a lack of familiarity as to where non-Christian societies, events and services were located.”
He added: “We didn’t want to monopolise the presence of any individual faith/belief society at the Balliol freshers’ fair.” Neither Au nor Potts have responded to Cherwell‘s requests for comment.
The Balliol Christian Union is affiliated to the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, a society which represents Christian undergraduate and postgraduate students from across the University. The Union states its main aim as “giving every student in Oxford University the chance to hear and respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article was amended to clarify that comments made by Balliol JCR Vice President Freddy Potts conveyed the collective view of the JCR Welfare Subcommittee.