Is Bible in Schools legal?

by | 6 Dec 2013 | 8 comments

Is Bible in Schools legal?

by | 6 Dec 2013 | 8 comments

Parents and board trustees need to be aware that the Bible in Schools program does not breach anyone’s human rights and is entirely consistent with an inclusive secular education system. Furthermore, it provides an important context for teaching values that are needed in our society.

Summary of a Symposium on Religion in Schools, held on Tuesday 15th October.

The NZCHR, generously hosted by DLA Phillips Fox, presented the Symposium on Religion in Schools. While the topic has garnered attention numerous times over the years, it is of current interest due to its recent exposure in the media. The event was chaired by John Hannam, partner at DLA Phillips Fox, and the question and answer session was facilitated by former Chief Human Rights Commissioner, Rosslyn Noonan. The panel consisted of three expert speakers; Peter Harrison, Simon Greening and Paul Rishworth.

Summary of Presentations

Peter Harrison, a Councillor of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists and founder of the Secular Education Network, discussed his concerns in regard to the transparency, or lack of, in the religion in schools programmes. He noted that the names of such programmes were often ambiguous and parents were not aware of what was being taught to their children. Additionally, children typically had to be opted out. Again, this was something that was not always clear to parents. He questioned whether children were being educated or indoctrinated. While Peter believed that children should be taught about faiths of all kinds and that there should be freedom of belief, he was uncomfortable that it was primarily Christianity being taught, and that it was being communicated as the one true faith. He noted that state education is secular and that to allow religious instruction in the school environment went against that principle. CEO of the Churches Education Commission (CEC), Simon Greening, spoke on the changes that CEC are making in terms of their religious education programme. He outlined the functions of CEC which included training, resourcing and managing their volunteer teachers. He was aware of past problems and stated that religion in schools programmes have modernised and accepted that there are a variety of beliefs. He explained that there is great oversight of their volunteers and firm policies are in place regarding how lessons are presented. Reforms to the programme are on-going to ensure what is being taught is done sensitively, as well as being made relevant to children today. He proposed that the current legal position struck the correct balance between the right of a person to express their religious belief in a public place and the right of school students not to be discriminated against because of their belief. Simon stated that ultimately it was up to the school Board of Trustees, who are elected by their community, to decide whether there is a place for religious education in schools. Paul Rishworth, Professor at the University of Auckland, discussed how religious education fitted in under the law, and in particular under the Bill of Rights Act 1990. He explained how religious instruction in schools is still allowed under the Education Act 1964 before going on to explore whether this was defensible/lawful. First he acknowledged some theories and approaches to the state and religion; total separation of the state and religion, and equality and neutrality on the part of the state regarding religion. Paul suggested there were three possible courses of action in regard to religion in schools – mounting a legal challenge to the law, interpreting the law in a rights-consistent manner, and applying the law in practice in a rights-consistent way. Challenging the law on the basis that the state and religion should be completely separate may possibly result in a declaration of a breach of the Bill of Rights, but the law would not consequently be invalidated. The other two approaches focused more on the idea that the state should play a neutral role when it came to religion. Regarding the interpretation of the Education Act, the relevant section could be interpreted as embracing all religions and therefore could be consistent with the right to freedom of religion. Finally, if the Education Act is lawful then, in its application, it must be consistent with freedom of religion. This includes having a clear ability to opt in/out and having legitimate alternatives for students who did not participate in the programme. It therefore appeared to be something that was defensible/lawful. A question and answer session followed the presentations and many members of the audience contributed with thoughtful queries and comments. There was a significant turn-out and the event was well-received. It was particularly appreciated that each speaker had something very different to bring to the table, making for a fair and balanced discussion.

via Symposium on Religion in Schools – The University of Auckland.

Glyn Carpenter
Author: Glyn Carpenter

Glyn Carpenter was National Director of New Zealand Christian Network from March 2003 to 2017. He attends Northcote Baptist Church in Auckland, is married to Christine (married in 1981), and they have three sons – two working as doctors and one in computer science.

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  1. Glyn Carpenter

    A common theme in comments from many radical secularists is the complete unwillingness to accept beliefs contrary to their own in the public square (education, politics, public policy, etc).
    Whether this flows from a lack of awareness or from a deliberate attempt to impose their own belief system on everyone else, I’m not sure. But the goal is the same – to create a public square where their belief system dominates – exclusively!
    But there are many good reasons for retaining a place for Christianity in NZ’s public square. Even though its adherents are far from perfect, and even though the Church in NZ (as elsewhere) has made many mistakes over the years, it would be uncharitable to deny that the Christian faith has had a profoundly good effect for the most part in NZ. (Witness the activity of churches and church groups just before Christmas in distributing gifts to those in need, to families of those in prison, etc).
    Yet it seems that exclusive secularists will not be happy until every last reference to Christianity is expunged from the public square. Under no circumstances, will they allow that it might be good for children in this country to be exposed to the faith and stories which have had, and still do have, such a positive impact.
    Even though around half of NZ-ers still claim Christian faith, exclusive secularists want those people to have 0% of airtime in the public square?
    It seems a little bit extreme and unreasonable to me.

    • Kirsty Young

      I think it would be better if all of the worlds major religions were taught to older children in social studies, this would include Christianity and the religious beliefs of all the students. This would create better understanding of the world we live in and the people around us. I’m not against Christianity or any religion, I just don’t want it to become an issue for my children at such a young age, my youngest is struggling to keep up with learning to read and write at the age of seven and leaves the classroom to attend reading and writing support along with others, some children leave for ESOL lessons, the last thing I want is him leaving again to do nothing while some religious volunteer is in there preaching their brand of religion. There are five children with learning issues in my sons class, plus a kid with ADHD who is very disruptive, these children need all the learning time they can get.
      Let me ask if you would be so happy if it were Buddhist or Muslim volunteers coming into the classrooms teaching their brand of religion as there are children from these faiths in our schools so they have just as much right to be there doing the same thing. I think religious beliefs like politics are a matter of personal choice. Weather or not they do good is irrelevant, the company I work for does a lot of good in the community but that doesn’t give them the right to peddle their wears in schools. Being secular means treating all equally and having all or none. There just isn’t the time to teach all religions to young children, the focus at this age is on reading, writing and simple maths.

    • Hayden Searle

      So if its ok to teach Christianity in schools, why not Islam, or Judaism (excuse the spelling)? Why should the kids be forced into a singular line of thinking? why can they not find religion themselves as they mature? I am having to make the decision on whether I allow my child to be taught by the bible in schools programme, yet there is no information on said programme, how it is taught, what it will mean for my child, and whether it will influence her ability to make an informed decision on whether she wants to be part of a religion. We are also worried that if we opt her out that she will be segregated from other members of her class, as she may be the only one who does not attend, so would be a bit of an outcast. I wouldn’t have a problem with her attending if she was in high school but at 5 years old, she would be fascinated by the story of a magic man in the sky who grants wishes. I also would be happy if it was about teaching values of the do unto others, turn the other cheek and so forth.
      I feel it is a personal choice to the person involved as to whether they believe or not, and at Primary School they do not have that free will to be able to decide what they believe, as everything an adult tells them must be the truth. The issue isn’t a simple as you are making it out to be. I choose not to believe, but I will not influence my daughter as to whether she wants to, as it is her choice, but I think religious instruction at Primary School is far too early

      • Glyn Carpenter

        Hello Hayden, Thank you for the questions. I know the Bible in Schools organisation and leaders and would be very surprised if your child would be taught about a “magic man in the sky who grants wishes”. There is a lot of information on the Churches Education Commission website which you will find useful.
        For the most part it is exactly the values you are talking about. The phrase “turn the other cheek” (which you mention) comes from the Bible. Why not teach it from the original? The main difficulty is that everyone has beliefs (Christian, Islam, theistic, non-theistic, atheistic, etc) and these beliefs are being subconsciously taught and reinforced every minute of every day. You cannot prevent your child from being exposed to “belief”. The only question is “which belief or beliefs” do you want them exposed to? Apart from Bible in Schools which presents a Christian view of life, the vast majority of the time your child will be presented with a non-theistic view of life. Is it right that this one view of life gets such a majority of the time share when it is still (at the last census) not a majority view in NZ? If what you are suggesting is that your child has 100% non-theistic teaching up to high-school, how will this allow for a free, balanced, informed decision about belief later in life?

  2. Kirsty Young

    If Bible lessons are appropriate for secular government schools, then why do schools have to legally close to accommodate them ?
    It does seem that schools that have them are showing preference to Christianity over other religions which comes across as endorsing only Christianity. In today’s multicultural society I think if religion is to be offered then to be fair to all students, a variety of religions should be available. I don’t really think it fair for schools to close and some students receive no lessons to enable some to be taught their beliefs. There are plenty of churches and Sunday schools that offer the privilege free of charge so I don’t see why it should be at the expense of others. It should in the least be the same as other extra curriculum lessons in that it’s out of the classroom in students own time such as music lessons. That way normal lessons can continue for those not wanting to attend and no one would be included by default.
    I also disaprove of schools saying these lessons are to teach moral values. Surly using none religious ways of teaching moral standards is better as this would be suitable for all students regardless of their beliefs. I don’t like that children in primary schools are segregated because of their religious beliefs.

  3. Dean Jones

    For what it’s worth, my own take on Simon Greening’s talk at a recent Secular Education Network symposium 15th October….

    Those who were present are welcome to challenge my analysis, however as I saw it the content of it appeared to infer the below logic…
    1 – The general practices of RI in New Zealand are acceptable, as they are compatible with relevant human rights laws. To determine if these laws are working or need changing, see point 2.
    2 – Human rights laws relevant to RI do not need changing, because the general practices of RI in New Zealand are acceptable. To determine why they are acceptable, see point 1.

    –This is circular reasoning on spin cycle–

    This kind of reasoning insulates itself from variables that should influence its conclusions. For instance, contrary to Simon’s reasoning we don’t assess whether the current RI laws are working based on whether we can find institutions and schools practising RI benignly within its boundaries. We assess them based on whether the law fails to prevent institutions or schools from practising RI in ways that cause harm to children under their care.

    We have good evidence that harm is being caused, harm that can be avoided with the right amendments or repeals to the law. We don’t have a problem changing or repealing laws on other subjects when we find they are allowing harm to be caused. The unjustified, privileged access that RI institutions have to impressionable primary school children should not be immune to this process.

  4. David Hines

    Simon Greening also admitted that about 2% of the schools using Churches Education Commission teachers were using Connect, a syllabus he agreed is too evangelistic for use in schools. However he said they would stop using it in 2014. But these schools could continue using Connect if they want; they would just need to find their own teachers.

  5. Jeff McClintock

    I respectfully disagree. Legal cases in Canada supported by International Human Rights convention threw out the “opt-out” system of Bible in Schools as coercive. There’s no legal precedent suggesting the same won’t be the case here in New Zealand. Much better is the “informed consent” (opt-in) approach endorsed here by the Churches Education Commission whereby parents must sign a permission slip to attend Bible in Schools.
    The reason is that a families religious beliefs are a closely held private affair. Therefore it’s only good manners to ask the parents permission before instructing a child in a religion, especially if that religion is contrary to the child’s own upbringing.
    For example I spoke to some local Jehovah Witness parents recently, they opposed Bible in Schools on the basis that the Pentecostal belief system used at Red Beach Primary was incompatible with their branch of Christianity. Shouldn’t we amend our law to recognise religious freedom should not be overridden by the state? What business does the Ministry of Education have deciding on any SINGLE religion to be taught in a modern multicultural public school? The entire concept is outdated.

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