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.
Originally published on nzherald.com on Wednesday Aug 7, 2013
Strange how some people are so fearful of religion. Nowadays it’s everywhere. A week or so back London officials banned the use of the phrase “in sickness and in health” in civil registry wedding vows as “too religious”.
Then, here, it was prayers in schools – to expunge these we would have to drop the National Anthem. And every day I hear passionate prayers from the most irreligious – all it takes is a finger caught in a door. Now it is the Bible in schools.
Why the fuss? Herald on Sunday columnist Paul Little asserts that religion amounts to “an intellectual transit lounge where the shackles of reason are thrown off and replaced with the loose fitting robes of superstition”. David Hines, “Rationalist”, is stuck in a time warp, still choking on Crusades and Inquisitions. Both are caricatures that fall little short of bigotry.
If rationalism means, as my dictionary states, “reliance on reason as the best guide for belief and action” then I am a Christian rationalist. And so are many of my Christian colleagues and friends. Indeed I would expand “reason” to read “reason and evidence”.
I am an orthodox Christian because of reason and evidence. I see no “shackles” piled up outside the door of my church each Sunday.
Does it not occur to these gentlemen, and so many others like them, that the institution that gave us modern empirical science is actually rather likely to engage with the mind?
Now in fairness I think we should be allowed to inspect Rationalist websites. What does one find? No end of bigotry, abuse and hatred of all things religious.
There is an issue about Crusades and Inquisitions and it’s this: People in the church have always distinguished between the church political and the church pious.
Of course the church political has lost its way from time to time. Look at any regime where accountability has been mislaid. But also time and again the church pious has pulled it back to its roots and reformed its practice. What are those roots? They are the Bible.
The Bible has to be read rationally as I have suggested and in the totality of its teaching. That core teaching lies at the heart of our institutions of democracy, freedom and justice, our understanding of the inviolability of human dignity, our very understanding of “the Western way of life”. Any denial of this is just modern-day medieval book burning.
So why would it not be taught in schools? If we want facts, data, evidence, archaeology – then all that can be provided. It forms part of my daily study.
And here’s the rub. All this data is actually substantial and requires a great deal of study to critically assimilate. I find people are simply unaware of the sheer quantity that is available.
Can we find the teachers who can teach this? That remains a challenge. I’m sure that in practice there are good examples and poor examples and, like all teaching, it requires excellent training.
It would be futile to attempt to remove religious terms from secular discourse. Here are some rather clumsy but illustrative few paragraphs:
There’s a fly in the ointment. It’s a sign of the times that politically correct busybodies, who are a complete law unto themselves, try to force us to set our house in order. Faith is the scapegoat. Religion, we are told, is the root of all evil, a thorn in the flesh for society which is wallowing in the mire of medieval beliefs. We need the patience of Job. How can we hold our peace? The PC powers that be, self-professed salt of the earth, have seen the light and seek to redeem us lost sheep from the howling wilderness of faith and bring us safe and sound back to sterile secularism. At the eleventh hour they hope to rescue us by the skin of our teeth.
Of course each of these phrases were introduced to the English language from the Bible.
Point made? Our historical religion lies doggedly at the heart of all our culture – our language, our institutions, even our science. Seems like there’s plenty to teach in schools.
Dr Jeff Tallon is a physicist specialising in superconductivity.
The New Zealand Herald has recently highlighted the on-going debate about religious instruction in classes. Specifically, Bible in Schools.
Nicholas Jones, NZ Herald journalist, states that, “One in three state primary and intermediate schools teaches religious instruction, according to a survey which has triggered a debate over what children are being taught – and the value of it.
The survey, sent to more than 1800 schools, reveals 578 have religious instruction classes.
Of these, 56 say they do not know the content of those lessons.”
Please read his stories here and participate on survey if it is still active:
Following are some of the reader’s views submitted to the NZ Herald website:
• Richard Clark: “Religion is a personal choice – it has no place in state-funded schools. Simple really.”
• Christine Richardson: “While some kids already will get some of this education at home, some kids aren’t and this is a positive input into their lives and can only be a good thing.”
• Brian Lehtonen: “Children do not need supernatural instruction in school. The values that the church sees as their own are not. These are universal human values. The world needs more adults who do not indulge in make-believe.”
• Stefan Nogaj: “The content being taught is always positive and if anything instils beneficial life skills. And remember, the mention of God is in our national anthem so naturally children have the right to understand the context of God’s inclusion.”
• Andrew Robson: “The issue as I see it is they teach the Bible as fact. This leads to major confusion when my kids get home and I try and tell them that the Bible is a story that some people believe and some don’t. If they are going to teach Bible in class they should teach it hand in hand with evolution and Darwin’s theory.”