Religious Education in NZ Primary Schools

religious education in primary schoolsReligious Instruction in New Zealand secular state primary and intermediate schools is in rapid decline. When I became involved in the campaign to remove it, back in 2015, around 40% of these schools promoted Christian faith teaching within normal school hours. At the time of writing (April 2022), it looks like this number has dropped to below 20%.

In no small part, this was due to the government being forced to review the law allowing religious instruction when members of the Secular Education Network succeeded in gaining a high court hearing to complain about discrimination facing children and parents caused by the application of these laws. Among the many witnesses was the Human Rights Commission, which was receiving numerous complaints about the effects of religious instruction being allowed into schools. Under pressure, the government changed the law in August 2020 to remove the requirement to opt children out of Bible in Schools classes and instead requires schools to ask parents to provide written approval for their children to opt in.

This change went a long way toward removing the privileged position that Christian evangelists enjoyed in our schools. The assumption that their religious faith teaching classes had automatic acceptance by parents was gone. Non-Christian families are no longer coerced into allowing their children to be taught religious beliefs that they disagree with in order to fit in and be accepted.

However… that’s not the end of the story. The government only altered the law in order to avoid a court case that would have forced them to justify why any religious views are allowed to be promoted in a secular school at all. Evangelicals are still allowed to enter secular state schools in order to spread their religious beliefs. Note that pages referring to “opt-out” on this website were written before the law was changed in 2020.

The whole topic of Religious Education (It’s actually Religious Instruction or “RI”) in state schools is a complicated issue that has been a battleground for over 140 years since the Education Act 1877 was enacted to legislate for all state primary schools in New Zealand. This page is a quick guide to the religious instruction issue. If you would like more detailed information, you might want to try some of these pages;

“I’d get in trouble with a lot of my fellow Christian ministers, but in schools, we don’t need Christian religious education, we need people to be literate about the religions that are in New Zealand.”

Reverend John Hebenton (speaking after the massacre of Muslim worshippers in Christchurch)
Vicar of St George’s Anglican Church in Gate Pa
Source: Stuff

Why is religious instruction allowed in a secular state school?

When the Education Act was created in 1877, it made basic (primary) education compulsory, free and secular (secular means “non-religious” or having no stance on religious faith). Before schools became free, most people could not read or write as only the more well-off could afford education.  It’s important to note that at this time, around 90% of New Zealander’s considered themselves to be Christians. Primary schools were made secular because they did not want different Christian denominations fighting over who would have access to this newly-compulsory education system. Until the Education Act was amended in 1964, there was a huge amount of debate about teaching religion in schools and much of it was done using a loophole called the Nelson system where the school was considered “closed” to allow the classes to take place. In 1964, this was included in the Education Act to make the classes legal. However, the school still has to “close” to allow the classes, as they are still required to be secular when they are open.

What’s wrong with learning about religion?

Nothing. But that’s not what they were doing! This is a common misconception. There are a number of religious instruction providers and they all have different syllabuses. They do not teach about religion, they instruct in Christian religious faith as fact based on the bible being the word of God. They do not teach from an academic/objective perspective. Their beliefs are not questioned and there is no discussion of other religions or beliefs. Generally, children learn to believe that there is a God, that the earth was built in 7 days, that Jesus was his son, taught how to pray to God and that the Bible is the source of information about God.

Isn’t it just teaching Christian values?

We all share some values with Christians but that doesn’t make them “Christian values”. Human values common to us all are required to be taught by the Ministry of Education, so there is no need for Christian volunteers to come and teach them. Human values and morals can be taught without any reference to religious beliefs. These classes are really about spreading Christian religious faith. Consider this quote from a previous head of the Churches Education Commission (recently re-branded to “Launchpad”), who provides most of the religious instruction classes in NZ Primary Schools;

 “Churches by and large have not woken up to the fact that this is a mission field on our doorstep.
The children are right there and we don’t have to supply buildings, seating, lighting or heating,”

“We often hear in church about the 10-40 window for evangelising people in the world. For me it’s a 9 to 3 window,”

David Mulholland, CEC National Director in a Baptist Newsletter – (01/09/2011)

This was not a one-off slip of the tongue. Christian evangelists want to convert your children while pretending to only be teaching good values. Read about this Pastor who preached about how he had “infiltrated” a local school or listen to an interview on Radio Rhema where the CEC ask local churches to “own your local school”. The CEC actively encourage their members to join school boards so that they can vote to allow religious instruction. But should boards of trustees be able to vote on something that discriminates against people who don’t hold the same religious views?

Isn’t this anti-Christian?

This is not an attack on Christianity, it is a defence against Christian evangelism. Remember that NZ primary schools were always meant to be non-religious so that children could be free of religious pressure at school. Our secular state primary schools should not be accessible to religious groups as a pool of potential recruits.

Christian groups have had privileged access to children through a long history of defying the Education Act. Because this has been happening for a long time, it does not mean that the classes are justified. Non-Christian children and their parents should be treated equally, but some Christians are now calling anyone that disagrees with Bible Classes, “Anti-Christian” or “intolerant”. I don’t see how promoting religious faith in a non-religious school could possibly be considered tolerant? Secular schooling is fair for everyone – let’s keep it that way.

“When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Does the Ministry of Education approve the classes?

No! The Ministry of Education has nothing to do with religious instruction classes because the school is “technically” closed when they take place. Because the classes are considered extracurricular activities (like after school sports) there are no limitations to what they can teach. The Ministry has no input whatsoever into the syllabuses taught. This is confirmed in a Human Rights Commission document called “Religion in NZ Schools”, stating there is no Ministry of Education approval (See Q22 on page 15).

The main provider of these classes in NZ, the Churches Education Commission (now rebranded as “Launchpad“) had an Advertising Standards Authority ruling against them in 2007 for claiming that their classes were approved by the Ministry of Education. However, many schools continued to tell parents that the RI classes are “approved by the MOE” as late as 2015. It’s completely false and misleads parents.

In 2019, the MOE did release guidelines for religious instruction but this should not be interpreted as approval of religious instruction. The MOE are only able to advise on how to comply with existing legislation, they do not comment on the rights or wrongs of it and the guidelines are not enforceable.

Why does this worry you so much?

Because a few people on a board of trustees (or even a school community) should not be able to choose a religion for a non-religious school. Because it discriminates against the children of non-Christian families. Because it is against the spirit of secular schooling, a breach of the Human Rights Act 1993 and is manipulative, coercive, unethical and divisive.

It’s not just me that’s worried about it. There are a lot of parents all over the country (including Christians) who are trying to get religious instruction removed from their children’s schools. These are parents with many different religious beliefs and backgrounds. The basic thing we all share is a belief that our children should be able to go to school and not have any religious pressure put on them. NZ Primary schools should be welcoming to children from all religious backgrounds and beliefs.

There are currently no laws about preaching religion in State High Schools or Early Childhood Centres, so this is going to become a much bigger issue. It should also be noted that at the same time religious belief is falling in New Zealand, there are some churches that are becoming more aggressive in their attempts to gain followers. Consider this document, “Evangelization of Children”, that the NZ Elim Church took a part in producing. It’s 64 pages long and is all about how the church can convert more children to their beliefs. Here’s another media report about Christian groups targeting schools.

But they don’t have to do it!

Why should children be removed from their own classroom and their friends to avoid religious evangelism in a non-religious school? This creates a religious divide within the school. Schools should be for teaching, not preaching. Schools that have religious instruction classes force children who don’t opt-in to the classes to lose up to 160 hours of their curriculum teaching due to bible classes. This is over 4 weeks of full-time teaching. Children cannot (by law) continue their curriculum teaching while their friends are doing a bible class. So even though they are not forced to participate, they are forced to stop school work and wait for them to finish.

Paul Morris, who is the Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University reviewed CEC religious instruction material and said that he did not consider them “… at all suitable for non-Christian, non-evangelical students”. The most damning evidence that “opting out” (removed in 2020) isn’t good enough is a document that was released by the Ministry of Education under an official information act request that shows their legal team said there was no defence for bible classes against a claim of direct discrimination. You can see it here. The most important highlighted part is at the bottom of page 3.

“… the provisions [for religious instruction in the Education Act 1964] could be challenged on the grounds of direct discrimination, for which there is no such defence.” – (Ministry of Education Legal Team in 2001)

What can I do about it?

First, join the Secular Education Network Facebook group, ask questions and see how they can help. The most important thing is not to stay silent. It’s wrong that your children are facing religious pressures at school. Talk to other parents. Often the only reason parents allow their children to attend the classes is because they think they’re the only ones who don’t like them and don’t want their children to be “different”. Don’t opt your children into the classes and consider getting a group of parents together to complain about them. Sometimes schools are just following an old tradition and other times there are people in the school acting out their own religious agenda. Don’t just do nothing.

Conclusion

Ultimately, this has nothing to do with Christianity or Christian beliefs. It just happens to be that even though less than half of all New Zealanders are Christians, there is an entrenched Christian position in some NZ state primary and intermediate schools. If it were Islam, Buddhism, Atheism or any other religious view, it would also be wrong for it to be brought into a state school. I know that some Christians think they are helping and doing the right thing by bringing their religious beliefs into the school but many of us are not comfortable with it. We feel pressured to conform to your ideas. We don’t want our children to be taught your religious beliefs as fact. It seems disrespectful and manipulative to try and indoctrinate them before they are mature or knowledgeable enough to consider what they want for themselves. Our children are not your potential recruits.

Parent complaints

Many parents feel that it is only them that isn’t happy about religious instruction in their children’s school. But you’re not alone! Here is a selection of complaints from NZ parents.

The Secular Education Network

The Secular Education Network (see their Facebook group and website) is very supportive of parents who have children affected by religious instruction. If you need help or just have some questions, please get in touch. There are lots of people who can help you.

In the video below, David Hines and Jeff McClintock explain why they became involved in working to remove religious instruction from NZ state primary schools. You might need to turn up the volume as it’s pretty quiet.