Deregistration aborted: religious clubs resurrected

by Winmas Yu (SID: 450536382)

Reflecting on the recent potential deregistration from the University of Sydney Union, the President of the Catholic Society has cited misunderstanding as the major reason that caused the incident.

The University of Sydney Union retracted after calling religious clubs to remove “discriminatory clauses” in constitutions. Image: Winmas Yu

The proposed deregistration of clubs from the USU Clubs & Societies Program

While reviewing an amended version of the Sydney University Catholic Society’s constitution in June last year, the University of Sydney Union (USU) spotted the requirement of executive members to be Catholic, which they considered as “discriminatory”.

The Clubs & Societies (C&S) Program Regulations states:

4.b.i. Ordinary membership of Clubs and Societies must be equally accessible to all USU Members.

Since then, over the past 12 months, there had been numerous emails and discussions between the USU and the Society, exchanging views and stance. However, the Catholic Society refused to remove the requirement, which has been existed in its constitution since its establishment in 1928.

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The University Catholic Chapel and Student Centre, University of Sydney, is owned by the Catholic Chaplaincy of the University of Sydney, Archdiocese of Sydney. Image: Winmas Yu

In November, the USU amended the C&S Regulations, further regulating that:

4.b.iii. [and 4.b.iv.] A club or society may not make ordinary membership or associate membership [or the possession of an Executive position] conditional on the beliefs or characteristics of an applicant, including (but not limited to) a person’s race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, religious beliefs or cultural background.

On February 17 this year, the USU requested the Catholic Society and the Evangelical Union (EU) to remove the discriminatory clauses from their constitutions in order “to comply with the ethos of the program and to avoid deregistration”.

Deregistration means that clubs will no longer receive funds and will not be able to use campus facilities for functions and events.

The EU requires all prospective members to “declare my faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as my Saviour, my Lord and my God” before they are admitted to the group.

This was when the Catholic Society and the EU decided to contact the media and “make a fuss about this”. Local and national papers then reported the incident and there had been a lot of pressure on the USU to reconsider the matter.

After serious consultation with the legal advice provided by the University of Sydney, the USU decided to “amend the C&S Regulations to allow faith-based declarations as a condition of membership and Executives of faith-based clubs registered under the USU C&S Program.”

“The USU did not consider the issue seriously enough”

Talking to Fairfax Media in March, Alisha Aitken-Radburn, President of the USU, explained that religion or faith did not play into the Board’s decision making. “All of our governing documents are grounded in inclusivity,” she said.

“We have never intended to be antagonistic to the evangelicals, it would be so upsetting if they were to leave the student union over this.”

Alisha Aitken-Radburn, President of the University of Sydney Union, said religion or faith did not play into the Board’s decision making. Image: Fairfax Media

Francis Tamer, President of the Sydney University Catholic Society, agrees that anti-discrimination and fairness are important, but the USU might have failed to acknowledge the nature of religious clubs.

“I don’t think they’d considered that our job, our whole mission, is about including as many people as possible to show them the faith that we have.

“It wouldn’t be fair to say no consideration was made. Maybe they did consider, but I don’t think they took this issue seriously enough,” he said.

He explained that it is essential for senior members to agree and subscribe to the teachings of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, willing to uphold, defend, and promote them.

“Our constitution has stated that the Executive have to be practicing Catholics… Students join the Catholic society with the intention of coming to know the Catholic Church in its most authentic form.

“As soon as you remove the requirement for the leaders to be Catholic, then their own personal views… will begin to seep through into events, into the ideology of the Society. So that means… they’re not actually experiencing Catholicism at its most authentic form, rather they’re experiencing the beliefs of the individual leaders,” Mr Tamer said.

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Francis Tamer, President of Sydney University Catholic Society, emphasised the importance of having practicing Catholics in the society’s Executive for the sake of coherence and authenticity. Image: Winmas Yu

Ms Aitken-Radburn told News Corp that the Union did not understand why they had to force members to sign declarations. “We value religious clubs, but… I really don’t understand why clubs can’t ask members to stand up on a voluntary basis… without forcing them to do it.”

Mr Tamer said the USU had maintained a strong stance until legal advice was offered to them. “The nature of their legal advice, I think, would suggest that what they were doing was unlawful. Otherwise, I don’t see why they wouldn’t continue following through with the deregistration.”

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has stated that:

22.1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others…

Some other non-religious clubs and societies also have “discriminatory” requirements for memberships, including the Socialist Alternative. The club’s constitution states that a member should “supports and advances the aims and objectives of Socialist Alternative”.

Dylan Williams, President of the ALP Club, told News Corp that his club does not require prospective members to be members of the ALP, “but we exist to promote the ideals of social democracy, so it would be weird if a Liberal wanted to join.”

Mr Tamer said every society has its own discriminatory clause, “If you look at it logically, if you’re going to remove any form of discrimination from any constitution… you’re watering down the purpose and the objective of the club.”

The USU and other student representative bodies have refused to comment further on the matter.

Manning House is where the University of Sydney Union offices located. Image: Winmas Yu

“But they are willing to consult with religious groups in the future”

In early-May, the Catholic Society was told, that the Union had decided to amend the C&S Regulations and establish a new category of clubs called “faith groups”; clubs in this category will have their own rules when it comes to discriminatory membership and leadership.

In a statement, the USU Board of Directors “acknowledges the importance of such declarations to some of our faith-based clubs and societies.”

Further, the Board also proposed the establishment of “an ongoing ‘Faith Rountable’ to promote greater interfaith and intercultural understanding”.

Mr Tamer thinks the interfaith council is a very good initiative from the Union.

“We are very happy with the result,” said Mr Tamer. “My expectation is that, when any issues arise, related to faith-based clubs… they would consult with us before making a decision.”

Speaking to Honi Soit, Ms Aitken-Radburn promises that the USU will work closely with religious clubs in the future.

“We’re always negotiating different perspectives to reach the best possible resolution. It’s just the nature of student governance and representation,” she said.

For more, watch our exclusive interview with Mr Tamer:



Word count: 1090


One thought on “Deregistration aborted: religious clubs resurrected

  1. Winmas,

    Firstly, excellent job mate! I didn’t know about this issue at all before reading the piece, and you’ve explained a fairly complex conflict in an engaging and easy-to-read way. I’d say that it’s quite a newsworthy topic for campus media such as Honi Soit. One point I’d make: though it’s a ‘serious’ topic, I think your feature might have benefited from a slightly more personal style. The use of the first person pronoun can often enhance reader engagement.

    Moving on to the nitty gritty: you’ve really nailed the presentation of your feature. The photos are relevant and captioned well (though perhaps could be a little more visually engaging). You seem very confident using WordPress, as shown in the use of embedded quotes, bolded sections of text, and quotes as subheadings. These kept my eyes interested as I read through your feature.

    Finally, the video embedded at the end of your feature was really good. I’m guessing that you took Broadcast Journalism this semester as well, because the edit is smooth and professional.

    Nice one!

    Liked by 1 person

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