freedom of associationWhen I first went to University in the 70’s I joined a club called the Temperance Society whose motto was to the effect of “we believe in moderation in all things, and in each members right to define ‘moderation’ for themselves”.

Of course, the Temperance Society was a drinking and social society whose name was a silly undergrad irony, and whose members were more likely to define ‘moderation’ at the binge end of the consumption scale than at the abstemious end.    Some of the great campus rakes were members as were many aspiring rakes.

But the Society was fairly non-prescriptive in its membership rules, as far as I can recall.  You signed up, paid your money and you were a member.  The committee had no power to ban prospective members who were, say, active evangelists for abstinence drink, food and flesh.  That someone opposed to the core bacchanalian activities of the club would want to join never crossed anyone’s mind, but if it had our view would have been “we’ll take your money, but you are going to have a painful time.” The most likely outcome for such members was, at best, boredom, but most likely they would be offended, and at worst they would leave in bitter disappointment and with tragic lack of fulfillment at failing to convert any of our members to their flock.

You have to ask yourself why they would want to join such a club, which was not shy about promoting the contrariness of its name.

I have to thank Henry Ergas in the Australian today for reminding me of these fond memories, writing as he has condemning the “offence” committed by the Sydney University Student Union on a club referred to as the “university’s evangelical union” in enforcing its own rules regarding non-discrimination on the basis of religion.  Apparently this club requires that its members be “the requirement that members be evangelical Christians” and these members are “required to attest to their belief that “Jesus is Lord”.  And the Student Union says: “No way, Jose! If you want our money and facilities, don’t discriminate on the basis of religion”.  The club, which I’ll refer to as the “Evangelical Union” does not want to remove this membership requirement, and has raised it to a “freedom of association” beef.

In his yarn today, Mr Ergas outlines his belief in the right of association as a fundamental right and supports this strongly later in the article “Protecting the right to associate, and hence its corollary right to exclude, is therefore not merely an obligation, entrenched by Australia’s acceptance of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but a vital public concern”.  He further says “After all, the purpose of the freedom of association is to allow the like-minded to band together in pursuing their legitimate passions and objectives”

But Henry make one fatal next step, supported by literary quotes left and right, that the right to association must be supported by the right to exclude. He writes: “for that purpose to be achieved, the right to associate must imply a no less powerful right to disassociate — to join with those who share one’s aims, but not with those who do not.”

The argument is flawed and the his own selections of quotes do not really lend their support. That he quotes Tocqueville and Plato on the purpose and difficulties of the “associative life”.  “Standing against the headwinds of social isolation”, presumably for the beliefs held by those doing the association, only further underscores this incorrect logic.

It is perfectly acceptable to protect a positive right to associate without adding the negative preconditions for how that association might be achieved, such as by excluding all those who do not agree with you or who do not meet perhaps other criteria for joining the club.  Tocqueville is saying that you can associate and be supported by your like-minded friends, but don’t expect it to be easy.  the headwinds of social isolation must be withstood from within the association just as much as without, and to deny this happens is to deny the inevitable schisms and factions that evolve in any association as it grows larger.

Henry also draws strength for his argument from Australia’s signing of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and he is right to do so.  Right of association is covered under Articles 21 and 22 of the Covenant, in which, if Henry reads them he will not find any support for exclusion of others as the enabler of the association.  As an aside, these Articles also support the rights of association explicitly implemented in Trade Unions.  Oops.

And don’t also forget that these Evangelical Christians are not being prevented from associating outside the framework of the University Union.  All that is being asked is that these folks comply with rules of a different club that they have already joined and have already agreed to rules related to non-discrimination.  The larger association in which the Christian Evangelical people are already enrolled has stated rules that guide and inform the rules of all the clubs that are formed within its structure, and that will therefore benefit from resources gathered by the larger association.  if these rules are unacceptable, they why were they agreed to in the first place?

So, having found no basis for Henry’s assertion other than personal preference and belief, I come back to the practical matters of membership of my Temperance Society, and by extension, the Evangelical Union.  As members of the Temperance Society we could have attempted to exclude prospective because they didn’t believe in getting mildly inebriated at a BBQ, or by asking them to toast the Queen, or President of the Club or both.  But we then would have run afoul of just the same reasonable rules as the Christians.

But we didn’t bother with such because we knew that no one in their right minds would want to associate with us in the first place.    And if they were evangelically inclined to go against their tastes, they would be bored or frustrated.

Likewise, the inverse is true: none of us in the Temperance Society, nor much of the rest of the world, could be bothered signing up for the Christian Evangelists even without the requirement for a formal attestation.  We’d be bored, frustrated and would leave.  There might be a little bit of intelligent niggle and disruption at first: a fairly typical uni student lark which would get stale very quickly, and nothing that the members would not have already experienced in other forums anyway.  These are just so “the headwinds of social isolation” that Henry and Tocqueville so lauded.

This is precisely the remedy that the aspiring Evangelists Union have available, if they want the Student Union’s shilling.

And it is only reasonable that they take it without further fuss.  Find something important to get uppity about.