Several days ago, The Sunday Times (paywall) reported that a UK Christian Union had been banned from holding prayer meetings and Bible studies on college premises under the rules laid down in the government’s Prevent strategy. It bears pointing out, as reported in Christian Today, David Cameron was asked a question on this very issue at PMQs. His response made clear that it was ‘clearly ludicrous’ to ban such activity and insisted those enforcing Prevent ought to use a bit more common sense ‘because it is quite clear that is not what it [Prevent] was intended for’.
Given that, there are only four credible explanations for this situation. Either: (1) Prevent is being used as a cowardly excuse by college senior management to shut down a Christian Union because of an anti-Christian/militantly secularist agenda on their part; (2) college senior management are overly officious and are applying the terms of Prevent against the clear intentions of the government; (3) the government Prevent guidelines are so loosely drawn – coupled with their desire to appear ‘even-handed’ against ‘extremism in all its forms’ educationalists are tied into disproportionate and unreasonable actions such as this; (4) some combination of all the above.
Now, clearly the Prime Minister does not accept the banning of Christian Union prayer meetings and Bible studies as a legitimate response to his Prevent strategy. One can even charitably concede that the government may have had no intention of inculcating such heavy-handedness. But it is not as if voice after voice, including religious leaders, social commentators and political advisers, said nothing of the unintended consequences of such a programme. And it is not as if this humble blog didn’t say ad nauseam that the consequences of such a measure, intended or otherwise, would lead to exactly this sort of thing. It has been repeatedly stated that ill-considered anti-terror/extremism legislation affecting free speech for harmless street preachers (Exhibit A) will soon reach into public buildings (Exhibit B), church buildings (Exhibit C; Exhibit D) and soon thereafter private ones.
If we can glean anything from the slew of cases in which the law has been misapplied, or in which ill-judged legislation has reached well beyond its intended scope, it is that peaceful law-abiding people inevitably get caught up in legislation that very often misses the very people it seeks to target. Rarely do the police interpret these laws well, rarely are they well drafted in the first place and equally rarely do they do anything to solve the mischief they are seeking to end. All too often, they end up as nothing more than a further curb on the entirely peaceful and harmless activities of religious groups who have proved no threat to British security for hundreds of years.
It is this that so infuriates in the Prime Minister’s response. For whilst he may see a ban on a college Christian Union as a foolish application of the law, recent history should have led him to suspect nothing else. The correct response would be to scrap the flawed and foolish Prevent strategy altogether. It is simply not credible to call the application of the law silly when similar laws are consistently applied that way. It is the legislation itself that is jejune, not the application thereof. Yes, the way the law is applied may be heavy-handed but that is only because the legislation itself consistently permits such interpretation. Passing the buck may be politically expedient but the application of the law is but a symptom of the ill-judged legislation from which it emanates.
If the government really wish to prevent terrorist activity, they should perhaps make clear in their legislation that they don’t believe terror cells typically form in Christian Bible studies and prayer meetings. Unless they do, and as long as they remain mealy-mouthed on the issue, similar nonsense will simply keep recurring.