When institutional ethos conflicts with public policy
The University of Wales is currently attracting some criticism over its links with certain colleges that hold to what has been described as a ‘fundamentalist Christian ethos’. In particular, some of the institutions concerned (often operating outside the UK) adhere to the view that homosexuality is morally wrong. The University of Wales validates their degree programmes, and in that sense endorses the content and standards of what is taught.
It has now been reported that some senior academics of the University of Wales plan to make a formal complaint to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, based on their view that the validation of these colleges runs counter to the Equality Act 2010, which requires public bodies to observe the requirement of non-discrimination in relation to a number of categories, one of which is sexual orientation.
If this complaint goes ahead it will address something that is more widespread than just overseas-based fundamentalist Christian colleges. There are numerous indigenous educational institutions that are based on particular religious or other cultural principles, and some of these could be seen as problematic. For example, the Roman Catholic Church and Islam also regard homosexuality as morally wrong, and the Roman Catholic church also reserves its ordained ministry for men only. This ethos is no doubt visible in at least some of the educational establishments that are maintained by them, which in turn either are public bodies or are institutionally linked to them.
There is in this a clash between the ethos of the state as set out in legislation and public policy, and the ethos of these and other institutions. How should the state deal with this? Is it a matter of freedom of speech and conscience that should be protected, or where at least an expression of something that deviates from public policy should be tolerated in the interests of cultural diversity? Or should the principles of equality to which the state is committed trump that? If that is so, it will affect more than just the validation arrangements of the University of Wales.
Often these matters are allowed to be obscured in creative ambiguity, whereby respect for inherited cultural and religious principles gives some leeway to the maintenance of an ethos that might otherwise be suspect. On the other hand, it is difficult to see what the point is of non-0discroimination principles that do not appear to apply to some of the bodies most inclined not to observe them. This is particularly significant in educational institutions, which will influence future generations.
It seems to me to be right to allow people to hold and express their religious beliefs; but that this must stop short of funding the teaching of those beliefs where they conflict with principles of equality and justice. Christians have often been at the heart of campaigns to protect and advance human rights, in line with the key messages of the New Testament. That is still the dominant ethos of Christianity. It should not be undermined by state tolerance of discriminatory principles held by some groups within it.