Christian group takes legal action after being blocked from holding Cambridge University conference

Christian Concern says Fitzwilliam College refused to allow a booking for a conference for “young” Christians on the grounds of the group’s “religious beliefs”

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A Christian campaign group is taking legal action against a Cambridge University college after not being allowed to book “an event”.

Christian Concern says Fitzwilliam College refused to allow a booking for a conference for “young” Christians on the grounds of the group’s “religious beliefs” and has alleged “discrimination”.

The college is disputing the claim and denies discrimination.

A judge oversaw a preliminary hearing at the High Court in London on Thursday and was asked to decide whether, and how, the claim should proceed.

Fitzwilliam College
Fitzwilliam College

Lawyers representing Christian Concern told Sir Ross Cranston that the group had a “wider concern” about “free speech on campuses”.

Barrister Alasdair Henderson, who led Christian Concern’s legal team, gave detail of the claim and said it should proceed in the High Court or be transferred to the county court.

He said Christian Concern was challenging a college decision not to allow the group to make a booking for “an event” on the ground of the group’s “religious beliefs”.

Mr Henderson told the judge: “We were very concerned about the wider issue of freedom of speech on campuses.”

Sir Ross concluded there was an “issue” to be tried but ruled the claim should be heard by a lower-ranking county court judge.

He said he hoped that the dispute could be settled.

A barrister representing the college outlined the background to the dispute in a written argument.

Yaaser Vanderman told Sir Ross how a Christian Concern representative had approached the college in January inquiring about booking conference facilities for about 100 people between September 5 and 10 2022.

Christian Concern
Christian Concern

Christian Concern wanted to host “what it called the ‘Wilberforce Academy’,” he said.

He said college staff had conducted internet research about Christian Concern.

“That gave rise to concerns about the reaction of the college’s students if the booking was accepted,” he said.

“The college informed the claimant that it had decided not to accept the booking on the grounds that ‘the event is not compatible with the values of the college’.”

He said the college’s head of catering and events had, during a telephone conversation, referred to Christian Concern not being “inclusive” – and mentioned the group’s “concerns over the LGBT community” and its opposition to gay marriage.

Mr Vanderman said, during the conversation , the Christian Concern representative had “rejected the assertion” that the group was not inclusive but “agreed” that its “understanding of marriage” is “as being between a man and a woman”.

He said there had “unarguably” been “no direct discrimination”.

No date or venue has yet been fixed for any county court hearing.

Outside court, a Christian Concern spokesman said: “For over a decade, the Wilberforce Academy has run a one-week conference for university students and young professionals who want to work out how to apply their Christian faith in the current culture and more specifically within their chosen vocations including law, politics, education, media, arts and business.

“Topics covered by expert international speakers include: the role of Christianity in shaping law and culture; understanding today’s context; biblical ethics on human identity and sexuality; comparative religion including examining the nature of Islam.

“The conference includes teaching on biblical beliefs that have been recognised by the Christian Church globally for the past 2,000 years.”

In a statement issued after the hearing, Fitzwilliam College said it noted and welcomed the court’s decision.

The statement continued: “The College continues to welcome conference bookings from a wide range of groups and organisations, with different beliefs and interests, including many religious groups.

Christian Concern wanted to mount judicial review proceedings in the High Court.

Sir Ross concluded the group should take a different tack in a county court.

A spokeswoman for the college said after the hearing: “Fitzwilliam College notes and welcomes the court’s decision today to refuse Christian Concern’s claim for judicial review.

“The college continues to welcome conference bookings from a wide range of groups and organisations, with different beliefs and interests, including many religious groups.