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.