Widely reported at the end of last week was a growing row at City University in London, following its decision to lock a room previously used for Friday prayers by Muslim students. Are there circumstances when a religious accommodation of that sort can safely be removed by an employer?
The University says that the lock-out will last only until it can be reassured that its premises will not be used for the preaching of extremist views or the creation of a “confrontational atmosphere”. For that purpose, it seeks prior sight of the sermons to be given. At first brush that does indeed sound a little over-bearing, it is true. Has it looked at the minutes of its Anarchists’ Soc? (Do Anarchists’ Societies actually keep minutes? Or is that all a little ordered?) However, there is some history to the matter, with external reports in 2010 noting the preaching of hard-line views and incitement to violence (including the killing of non-believers) which the University obviously has a legitimate interest in avoiding on its premises.
The students’ view is very much as one would expect from students – that they are “being unjustly targeted”, and that when sermons have to be cleared in advance “there is a chance for it to be dictated what’s allowed and what’s not allowed. We, as students, don’t accept that”.
This is in no sense about Islam as opposed to any other religion, but about the balancing of potentially conflicting interests. Exactly the same would be true if the University were a business and the students its employees. The University/employer has a legitimate interest in maintaining a harmonious working environment and in not allowing conduct on its premises which may militate against that or may actually constitute a criminal offence. Reputationally, it would be extremely damaging for the University to be seen to turn a blind eye to the radicalisation of students of any faith. To the extent that it is responsible for the wellbeing of its students/employees, the University/employer must be entitled to a reasonable degree of supervision of their activities.
Against that, the students/employees have a right of free speech and to manifest their religion at work, in each case subject to the general law and the rights and freedoms of others. They also have a right within reason to say things which others in society may find distasteful or just plain silly – students have always espoused radical ideas and most of them quickly grow out them with no lasting harm done. But there is distasteful and silly on the one hand and dangerous or illegal on the other – no religion and no juvenile views about not wanting to be told what is and what is not allowed should blur that line.
One unanswered question in all of this is why now? The BBC News website is aware of no evidence that the hard-line comments of 2010 and earlier are still being repeated at the University. The balancing of those competing interests must include an assessment of the current risks. If there has been nothing said recently which crosses the line, the University’s actions could legitimately raise eyebrows. Though one might say that by the time something has happened to warrant the concern it is too late to stop it, an employer’s position will always be stronger if it can point to actual problems arising from religious accommodations, rather than a mere apprehension of them.