One of the worst aspects of religious instruction classes is the way in which children and parents in a supposedly “inclusive” primary school can be “othered”. Here’s a list of ways that families who don’t want to be involved in religious faith teaching are excluded from the school community.
1. Holding classes within normal school hours
For parents, this can be a real issue. Parents often allow their children to go into an RI class because they are unwilling to put their kids in the “opt-out class” and they can’t be dropped off late or picked up early due to work commitments.
2. Calling it a “Values Class”
Religious instruction comes in many flavours and Christian evangelism has come a long way since the early days of Bible In Schools. Now, your children may be attending “Values in Action”, “Discovery” (sounds sciency), “Champions”, “Cool Bananas” or “Supakidz”. Because what kid doesn’t want to be a Champion Cool Banana Supakid, right? The kids that aren’t “Champion Cool Banana Supakidz” are just the “Opt-Out Kids” …stink!
Some parents don’t even realise these classes have anything to do with religious faith because the material they are given talks more about teaching “values” or “building confidence” and says nothing about God, the Bible or Jesus.
3. Providing teachers with extra non-contact time
Teachers are amazingly quiet on the issue of religious instruction but talk to them privately and many will admit that they don’t like it. The ones that do complain to the teacher unions get no response and the NZEI maintains that RI is not an issue for teachers despite not surveying them on it since the 1980s. Why is this? Quite likely it’s because teachers are reluctant to risk their jobs by complaining. For some, it’s because they benefit from the extra non-contact time that allows them to manage an already heavy workload. This can lead to encouraging parents to let their kids attend as they don’t want to have to look after the minority of opted out kids. I’ve certainly had an opt-out teacher complain that there were too many kids in her classroom.
4. The end of year Christmas show
Holding a big fun show Christmas show at the end of the year that opt-out kids aren’t allowed to attend. Yes, this really does happen. The Christmas show can sometimes have a strong religious theme or even be managed by the religious group offering the bible classes. Some schools even invite religious organisations to put on a Christmas show for them that children are involved in. Parents pay to see their kids and the show raises money for the organisation. This can also be seen in fund-raising through events like the 40-hour famine and “shoeless day”, which both raise money that goes directly to evangelical Christian charities.
“A regular classroom teacher told one of my kids he couldn’t celebrate Christmas because he didn’t believe in god.”
L.G. – Facebook
5. Giving out lollies and playing fun games
Despite parents complaining about this and denials by bible class organisers, this happens a lot. Kids have come home with pencils and stickers saying things like “God Loves You” that their friends in the Bible classes show off to them. Opt-out kids come back to class and hear from their friends how much fun they have been having getting lollies, playing fun games or colouring in.
“When I was at primary school, I had to go out of my way to learn about how to opt-out, got a form for my dad and had to get him sign it, bring it back and give it to a teacher, then was put in the library for an hour every Friday while my friends got to sing songs and colour in. Bit of an odd experience as a seven year old.”
Chlöe Swarbrick (Member of Parliament)
“At my school, the opt-outs were sent to the library to read. My family wasn’t Christian, but I told my mum I didn’t want to opt out because we got lollies during the Bible lessons.”
(Comment on Reddit)
6. Not letting opt-out kids do anything fun during RI
Some opt-out classes seem to be intentionally boring to make the bible classes more attractive. Or if the opt out class is fun, kids have been told to keep it a secret because ‘the others kids might find out they are doing something fun and not want to go to RI anymore’. The worst schools don’t even have an activity for the kids who opt-out. They just sit outside, in a spare classroom or are even penalised for not taking part by being given jobs such as picking up rubbish.
“I still remember having to sit outside, or in the library while the rest of my class were indoctrinated. While I absolutely agree with my parents decision, it was a lonely time as a child. This law is a relic of a bygone age, get rid of it.”
R.B. – Facebook
7. Making it opt-out
The very nature of opt-out ensures most kids go to bible class because parents don’t want their child to feel excluded. They allow them to attend even though they would rather not, which just exacerbates the problem.
Requiring parents to opt their children out assumes their consent and punishes them by requiring them to identify themselves as “dissenting” to opt-out. The bias against opting out (despite actual preferences) is supported by studies.
“A friend of mine’s kid was not pressured but, how to say, motivated to do the bible class (West Auckland) and they opted out, the kid was sitting outside and reading something she liked while the others were in the class. There were no repercussions or negative consequences (except maybe handling the peer pressure) so nothing bad, but she had to opt out – in a state school. It’s wrong.”
Z – Reddit
8. Having role calls before Bible Classes
Schools often do the role call right before the bible class starts. This means that kids who come to school later to avoid the classes are required to walk to the school office to sign themselves in.
9. Including religious observances with everyday school activities
It’s not unusual for other things such as assemblies, announcements or prize-givings to include a religious aspect where a school has a strong religious bias.
“…there’s also a whole school karakia in the morning where they announce messages etc., so if the kids aren’t there and come in later as above, they’ve often missed out on important information for the day.”
10. Being left in the same room
Pretty appalling to leave a child in the same room as an activity that their parents have explicitly said they are not to be part of but it happens a lot, especially in small schools.
Being left in the same room as the everyone doing bible in schools and being told to ‘read a book or something’ (this happens several times a year). Despite opting out at the start of the year, every year, the school not being prepared for the opt-out kids by the time the bible bollocks starts. This year, both year 5 kids, in separate classes, were told to stay in class because there was nowhere else for them to go (one of the teachers had, several years ago, told their older sister to stay because it would be good for her). When I emailed the principal he was unaware of it (i.e. he was unaware that his school had no plan in place for the kids who were opt out.. again…)
11. Requiring parents to opt-out every year
Parents aren’t told they have to opt-out every year so the school will simply continue to include the child in the classes the year after they have opted out.
“Only half the classes get given the opt-out notice.”
12. Using enrolment form choices for years
Schools ask at enrolment without providing any information on the class and continue to use the “yes” to continue including children in the classes. Often this is literally a “Religious Education Yes/No” tick box. The parent’s assumption about the class is what the decision is based on regardless of how little information is provided. This could be for as long as 8 years!
13. Asking loaded or misleading survey questions
Even when schools do ask the parent community what they want the questions are often geared toward getting a particular answer. These “Are you a good parent? yes or no” type of questions are pretty insulting and the motivation is obvious.
“… when the board put out the parent survey they always ask ‘do you support having a values class’ which of course gets mostly yes answers.”
KB – (Facebook)
These sort of questions are intentionally putting parents in the position of having to state that they don’t want a “values class”.
14. Ignoring the results of surveys that don’t go the way they want them to
While Boards of Trustees often use the results of a school survey to justify offering religious instruction, when the results don’t go the way they want them to, they simply ignore them. Schools who have over half (or near to half) of the parents voting against religious instruction have still continued to offer it.
15. Providing false or misleading information to parents
Some schools just blatantly offer nonsense or biased information to parents, such as; claims of MOE approval, only providing promotional material to parents or simply not telling them anything about the classes including the promotion of religious faith.
16. Active coercion by the school
There have been instances where the school is actively involved in encouraging parents to change their minds and allow their children into the bible classes. One report tells of a school office admin calling parents to ask if they are sure they want to opt their kids out because there is “nothing bad in it”.
“… when I said I didn’t want to take part I was forced to sit outside on the bench. 32 degree heat in Whakatane with no shade near the bench, I wasn’t allowed to play or read… From then on I went to them.”
M.B. – Facebook
17. Presenting a majority vote as being “fair”
I’ve been strongly opposed to the idea of voting on religious instruction as it is against the principles of secular education. BOT’s seem to ignore the fact that although something can be voted on, the vote does not justify the options they are presenting. I wouldn’t vote on whether to allow religious evangelism into the school any more than I would vote for a school to allow political party members into the school on a weekly basis.
18. Going to school camps that require religious activities
School camps are something every kid looks forward to. However, parents don’t realise that a lot of the camps that schools go to are owned and run by religious groups (one of the benefits of tax-free status) who require the school to serve their students up for prayers, bible classes or a “talk”.
19. Teasing by other kids
This happens everywhere and in many different situations but the divisive nature of bible classes creates a bullying opportunity. Children are asking about why the opt-out kids don’t attend, why they don’t believe in god or harassing them with things they have learnt in the class, such as; “God is an invisible friend who follows you everywhere you go”.
20. Introducing religious clubs to the school
Khandallah School’s board of trustees tried an especially manipulative tactic where they changed their policies to allow religious clubs at lunchtime. The idea was that while some kids might be doing drama or sport, the Bible Club would be run by adults from “Arise”, an evangelical church. Fortunately, parents organised themselves, complained and ultimately, the idea was shelved.
21. Chaplains, Youth Workers or Counsellors from church groups
While it’s great to have counsellors, when they’re from a local religious group, boundaries can get blurred. In Oamaru, a local pastor was the chairman of the board of trustees, a religious instruction teacher and also a counsellor. It was an organised attempt to evangelise to children in the school. He was exposed when he boasted to his congregation how they had successfully “infiltrated” the school, and after months of complaints and an investigation by an independent party, he was voted out of the board.
22. Withdrawal of support by church members
Despite claiming the moral high ground and claiming to teach “Christian values”, church groups are not above a bit of blackmail. Give us your kids or we will punish you. At Glendowie school in Auckland, it was suggested that the church may not allow a nearby carpark to be used if they didn’t have access to the school and in the Reddit comment below, another group threatened to withdraw support for disadvantaged children if religious instruction was removed from the school.
23. Just not telling parents about it
Some schools actually run religious activities without even telling parents they are happening. This is very common. There is a degree of arrogance from the people who are keen on the classes. They know what is best for your child!
“While ago now but this was provided by Cool Bananas and at the same time the teachers had their staff meeting. I had no idea until bits of paper came home telling us Jesus loves us. Later my boys requested permission to opt out and go to the Library.”
Amanda Gilbertson (@ANJGilbertson) August 26, 2019
24. Biased school teachers
Sometimes teachers let their personal religious views take precedence over their professional obligation to offer children a religiously neutral (secular) education. Teachers should be standing up for principles that support a fair and inclusive education for all children. Most do but are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to criticising the decisions made by the board of trustees to allow religious instruction classes.
“Once other children saw the reaction of the teachers [to] my children opting out, they knew “hell hath no fury” like a teacher. They were told, if any more students opted out (after 4 in one day), the RI teacher would lose her “job”.
“My daughters speech on why children need religion education on ALL religions got shut down by the teachers.”
25. Asking the Bible in Schools kids to “bring a friend”
Some religious groups also encourage children to evangelise to their friends and reward them for bringing other kids to the class. This is more likely to happen where the bible class is a lunchtime club or group
26. Intimidation by Bible teachers
For the most part, Bible In Schools teachers are not professional teachers. They are sometimes “accredited” by the same organisation that provides the syllabus, or in the worst case, a completely untrained local volunteer who has an opinion about god they want to share with your kids. It’s amazing who schools will give access to children with little oversight of what is being taught. Often, the board of trustees who approved the classes have not even read the teaching material. I’ve heard many stories about children being told about Santa not existing or being frightened by tales of “hell”. While this sort of thing isn’t meant to happen, it does and is not covered by the Education Review Office as it is an extracurricular activity.