The Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC) recently issued new guidance on university events in the UK, which means that universities can no longer allow gender segregation to be enforced at events on campus. This flies in the face of the controversial guidance issued by Universities UK (UUK) in November 2013, which permitted gender segregation on religious grounds, and is, in my opinion, a fantastic outcome for anyone who values equality and a secular society.
Secularism isn't just about separation of church and state - it's about ensuring that people of all religious viewpoints are treated equally under the law and that no-one faces discrimination simply for the views they hold. It also holds that no-one should receive special privileges for the views they hold either.
We're very fortunate to live in a society which is broadly secular, admittedly with notable exceptions such as an established church and state-funded religious schools, but today at least no-one gets imprisoned for apostasy or blasphemy. The Equality Act ensures that, for the most part, unjustified discrimination because of gender, sexuality, race or belief is illegal, and any organisation which allows such discrimination will be held accountable and the vast majority of people in the UK support secularism in principle, if not in name.
However, the guidance given by UUK back in November couldn't be described as secular in any way: in this bizarre report, gender segregation was to be allowed at events on university property if it was demanded by a speaker because of their religious views, as long as it was segregation 'left to right' and not 'front to back'.
The arguments in the report were full of shaky assumptions and completely misused an appeal to freedom of speech, insisting that a speaker's right to freedom of expression would be infringed if they couldn't segregate an audience in accordance with their religious views, and that segregating 'left to right' wasn't true discrimination, according to the report, as men and women would both be "segregated in the same way". It assumed that it was perfectly acceptable for men and women to be treated as 'separate but equal', despite the overwhelming historical precedent that treating two groups as 'separate but equal' is never a realistic state of affairs which - in practice - rarely remains equal for very long. It also assumed that a person's religion is an intrinsic part of them, such as height or shoe size, rather than a set of beliefs that they hold, which could be subject to change, and that it would be against the physical ability of someone with certain views to speak in front of an unsegregated audience, as well as implying that world views that were religious in nature were worth more than other world views such as Feminism or Humanism which take gender equality as an ideal to strive for.
In short, it was a disaster, and the public reaction reflected that: while the NUS supported the guidance, politicians such as David Cameron, Vince Cable and Chuka Umunna condemned it, and the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist & Secular Student Societies (AHS) - of which I am the current President - along with other Humanist and Secular organisations, were among the first to raise concerns with UUK, pointing out that the guidance was in fact in breach of the Equality Act. The EHRC, a government body whose purpose is to enforce equality and human rights legislation, eventually forced UUK to withdraw their November guidance on these grounds, and set about drafting new guidance of its own to supercede it, consulting many of the complainants, which included the AHS.
The new guidance set out by the EHRC is infinitely better and much more secular in its outlook. It completely overturns the most objectionable aspects of the previous UUK guidance, while allowing religious students on campus to attend worship separately, according to their religious views, as long as it's completely voluntary.
Ultimately, this means that universities now can't knowingly allow gender segregation at public events held on their campuses. The new report puts it fantastically, stating that "all attendees would need to be at liberty freely to choose where they wished to sit without any direction, whether explicit or merely an implicit expectation."
There is now no doubt as to where the law stands on this issue. The EHRC's new guidance makes it absolutely clear that permitting involuntary gender segregation is unlawful, and that if just one person were to feel pressured into a position of segregation, the university would be held responsible: "Segregation is not voluntary where any one individual feels that their choice is constrained [...] regardless of whether they have been explicitly directed or instructed as to where they can sit. Involuntary segregation will constitute unlawful discrimination..."
It goes on to lay out very concisely why the Equality Act is so fundamentally important to our society, and the case for secularism: "Equality law protects individuals from discrimination because of their religion, but protection against religious discrimination cannot be exercised in order to claim rights or privileges that would disadvantage others". It's is very heartening to see this principle made so clear in a document that carries so much legal weight.
Everyone has freedom of (and from) religion and belief, and the right to practice however they like, but it should never impact upon the freedom of others to live their lives how they wish. That the government is choosing to uphold this basic but vital principle is a fantastic victory for secularism, humanism and feminism, and another step towards a more equal and fair society.