Christian privilege – Are you on the right side of history?

ruby bridges
ruby bridges
Ruby Bridges being escorted by three U.S. Marshals from William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, 1960

This is a speech to the board of trustees by Pippa Jinks, whose children attend Riverhead School. The comparisons she makes with racial segregation and civil rights protests in the USA in the 1940’s to 1960’s might seem excessive to some people. However, if you read her speech, I think there are strong similarities between the white privilege assumed by the parents who pulled their children out of the school Ruby Bridges attended and the Christian privilege that is assumed by those who consider it their right to bring their religion into our non-religious state schools.

Thank you for allowing me to speak today. I’m on a time limit here, so I’ll talk fast. You’ll have to excuse me if my voice wobbles, but this is a scary place to be, so I’m going to try to be brave like Ruby Bridges – if you haven’t heard of her, I promise I’ll tell you a good story about her later.

You are all good people, who give up your time to make sure our school is a great place to be. I apologize if I have made this year more difficult for you as board members, but I do not apologize for raising this issue as I believe it is a human rights issue, and as an ex-teacher  myself I feel passionately about equality for all our children. I have a recently been invited to support the group working with the Human Rights Appeal Tribunal to change the law around religion in schools. I have a degree in history and I firmly agree with Pearl S. Buck’s lovely quote “If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.”

It became clear in discussion with the school, that the staff were initially unclear about the law surrounding  religious instruction, or RI, in state schools. The Education Act of 1877 provided for free, compulsory and secular education in NZ. In 1964, a time when 90% of the population identified as Christian, a legal loophole known as the “Nelson Dodge” was introduced in the form of Section 78 of the EA, which allows the board to close the school for no more than 60 minutes a week or 20 hours in a year for the purpose of religious instruction, although from the students’ perspective nothing has changed while the school is ‘closed’, and it seems that that many parents and staff were unaware the school was required to be closed during the sessions. Our school keeps no data on the times closed, so we can’t be seen to be following even the letter of the law, let alone the spirit.

Bear with me while I outline ten reasons this situation needs to be addressed:

  • RI is not values lessons, and is not part of the curriculum. The CEC who run our Champions programme have agreed in court that it is religious instruction, and have referred to schools as “rich mission grounds”. The curriculum already includes teaching about values, and so the school must present values lessons to all children anyway, without a religious bias.
  • According to the survey held last year, 50% of the school community do not want the lessons to continue in class time. The Champions website clearly states that 50% parental support on a survey means a school should drop their programme. If half the community has told us they do not want something that isn’t part of the curriculum to be offered during school hours, how can we justify continuing to lose teaching hours to it? Regardless of the figures, it is not how democracy works to allow a majority to vote to discriminate against the human rights of a minority.
  • I believe our junior classes have a much higher opt out rate, implying either that the community is becoming less accepting of RI, or that we have a problem with peer pressure, meaning older students are taking part against their wishes to avoid stigma.
  • When we conflate a single religious viewpoint with morality, by implication the children perceive that those opting-out are less moral. Claiming that Christian values are the basis of our society isn’t respecting diversity as required in the curriculum, and is dismissive of other religious and non-religious views.
  • The quality of the programme is not up to standard. Paul Morris, Professor of Religious Studies, recently reviewed the Champions material and declared it to be “inappropriate and objectionable” to non-Christian students and parents, and said it did not support the NZ values curriculum and “may well be at odds” with it.
  • Making students leave the room to opt out based upon their parents’ religious beliefs is discriminatory, and violates their rights under the Bill of Rights Act. I note that the board declined my request to declare their own religious positions. If the board don’t want to share their personal religious views (which should surely be transparent to rule out any conflict of interest) as they believe them to be private, why are we insisting our children and the parents in the school community do just that? Every time the opt out children leave the room they are forced into publicly announcing their belief system, or lack of it.
  • Our community is changing. Less that half the population now identifies as Christian. As Riverhead expands at breakneck speed, we will be welcoming a huge range of families to the school, bringing with them different cultural and religious perspectives. It is simply not equitable for the school to be seen to endorse only one religious viewpoint, and it makes the school a less welcoming place for those with other belief systems.
  • If the teaching staff stay in the room while volunteers present Champions, then how is a five year old to understand that the viewpoint presented is not one endorsed by the school? Moreover, it is against the Bill of Rights act for the school to have a policy requiring teachers to stay in the room, as that conflicts with the teacher’s right to freedom from religion. It’s a minefield, and we rely on the good nature of our teachers to stay with the children, thus compromising the neutrality of the teacher in the eyes of the children.
  • The board of trustees has a legal responsibility under the Education Amendment act 2013 to perform its functions in such as way as to allow every student to attain his/her highest possible standard of achievement. While currently a third of our children are below, or well below standard in writing, how can we justify closing our school and losing up to 20 hours teaching a year, to include a programme that is not part of the NZ curriculum?

And lastly – perhaps most importantly – there is the reason I call “being on the right side of history”. I want to share with you a story. It’s about a small girl called Ruby Bridges. If you haven’t heard of her, you might like to see a picture of her. This is Ruby Bridges, on her first day at school in New Orleans, back in 1960. She was one of the first children to participate in the school integration system, and was sent at six years old, guarded by US marshals, to an all-white school. As Bridges describes it, “Driving up I could see the crowd, but living in New Orleans, I actually thought it was Mardi Gras. There was a large crowd of people outside of the school. They were throwing things and shouting, and that sort of thing goes on in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.”

US Marshal Charles Burks later recalled, “She showed a lot of courage. She never cried. She didn’t whimper. She just marched along like a little soldier, and we’re all very, very proud of her.”

As soon as Bridges entered the school, white parents pulled their own children out: all the teachers refused to teach while a black child was enrolled. Only one person agreed to teach Ruby, and for over a year, Barbara Henry taught her alone.

That first day, Bridges and her adult companions spent the entire day in the principal’s office; the chaos of the school prevented their moving to the classroom. On the second day, however, a white student broke the boycott and entered the school when Methodist minister, Lloyd Foreman, walked his 5 year old daughter through the angry mob. A few days later, other white parents began bringing their children, and the protests began to subside.

Every morning, as Bridges walked to school, one woman would threaten to poison her. Another put a black baby doll in a wooden coffin and protested with it outside the school, a sight that Bridges has said “scared me more than the nasty things people screamed at us.”

It’s a terribly sad story, and thank goodness for the courage of people like Ruby Bridges, Barbara Henry and Lloyd Foreman for standing up against inequality. It seems unthinkable to me that the laws allowing that to happen, and the attitudes of people, could be that way as recently as 1960.

Now let me tell you about another brave woman  – Vashni McCollum, who 15 years earlier, all the way back in 1945, took her local board of education to court over the voluntary religious instruction in public schools, and argued against separating children at school on the basis of their religion. She lost her job, she had to send her son away from the district because of bullying, and was regularly branded “that awful woman” but after a three year court battle, the US Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the religious instruction programme was unconstitutional, violating the rights of the children.

Sometimes history doesn’t progress in a straight line, and it’s hard to join the dots, so it seems strange that a country which ruled against voluntary RI in state schools in 1948, took another 12 years to integrate schools and treated Ruby Bridges as it did. What is even more astounding, is that some 67 years later, we are having the same fight as Vashni McCollum here in NZ. Just like racial segregation, segregating children on religious grounds, and endorsing just one religious viewpoint in a secular state school is morally wrong, regardless of the law that enables it. Religion and race are so closely correlated, that if you separate on the basis of one, you mostly achieve the other, regardless of intention.

There have been no fewer than 12 cases against RI presented to the Human Rights Commission and on April 16 next year the High Court in Auckland will hear McClintock vs Red Beach School board in this very matter. The law will change in the coming years, of that I have no doubt. My question to the board is, if we wait for that law change, which side of history will we be on?  Ruby Bridges and Vashni McCollum’s side? Or those that opposed them and accepted inequality because the law at the time allowed it?

Secular schools are not anti-religion. Secular means that state schools have no comment on religion; it is outside the scope of the school. This provides protection, not only for those without religion, but also for religious minorities.  Anglican minister  Rev. Clay Nelson wrote earlier this year “In my view, not until the Nelson System is abolished will teaching religion be replaced with teaching about religion. Preserving precious human rights depends on it. A more peaceful world depends on it. Making it happen depends on us.”

So what to do? A review of Champions isn’t due for another two years, by which time section 78 might well have a court precedent declaring it at odds with the Bill of Rights. If we wait for that to happen, Riverhead school will forever be on the wrong side of history, and will have shown it is a school not prepared to make a stand to treat all children equally, regardless of their religious views.

There’s such an easy win/win for our community here, and that is, from 2016 to follow the Human Rights Commission guidelines, as recommended by the School Trustees Association, which state: “Boards could consider permitting RI when the school is already closed for instruction.” During school hours, keep school open, and teach the curriculum. Religious instruction could be offered as an opt-in lesson outside school hours like any other extra-curricular activity, and everyone would be catered for.

Sometimes doing the right thing is hard. We don’t want to offend those we have worked with for years. But surely doing the morally correct thing, even when it’s hard, is the aim the RI teachers are trying to encourage in our kids? It’s time for the adults at the school to show courage in that lesson, and make Riverhead School inclusive for all children.

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