This letter was sent to the Human Right Commissioner, David Rutherford, by Tina Carlson-McColl, who is concerned about the religious instruction that is taking place at the school her kids will be attending. She presents a very clear and concise argument that is difficult to dispute. So why is the Ministry of Education not taking any action or even declaring their own stance on this issue, despite court cases, complaints to the Human Right Commission and directly to the MoE?
Dear Chief Human Rights Commissioner, David Rutherford
My query relates to a complaint I would like to make to the Human Rights Commission about the systematic religious discrimination of children in public schools. However, the ethical and legal nature of the complaint goes beyond my current situation so I was wondering if you could please provide me with some feedback about the matter?
I am writing to you to make a formal complaint about how Religious Instruction is taught in supposedly secular state schools. I believe there are some glaring inconsistencies between the way Religious Instruction is conducted under the Education Act, with the Bill of Rights Act, Human Rights Act and the Care of Children’s Act.
The Ministry of Education allows Religious Instruction (RI) under the Section 78 of the Education Act to take place in the New Zealand public School system. However although the Ministry is happy to allow the programs, it provides little guidance or regulations about how it works in practice and instead leaves it to the Board of Trustees of each individual school to govern.
Common practise seems to be, in schools which have a RI program, that only Christianity is taught and that the program is typically run during the school day. The schools are therefore closed in name only and it is unlikely that pupils or parents are aware of the closure. My first issue with this system is that by firstly the Ministry allowing RI and secondly the Board of Trustees supporting the program and thirdly the program being run during the school day, it would appear to most people that the program is not only endorsed by the state but also part of the curriculum. The confusion is added to by the programs which frequently advertises themselves as “supporting the NZ curriculum”. If a school endorses the teaching of only one religious belief through running just one RI program, then how can the school be entirely secular in accordance with Section 77 of the Education Act? The practise of promoting one religion above others by a government authority blurs the boundary between church and state and allows systematic discrimination based on religious belief, contrary to Section 1A of the Human Rights Act.
Under section 78 of the Education Act the school is supposed to be closed during Religious Instruction. However, it is common practice to run these programs during the school day. Therefore it is not clear to students and parents that the school is closed. The second issue with the system that allows Religious Instruction programs to be run during the school day is that doing so makes the school segregate and discriminate against children based on their religious beliefs. A child is unlikely to understand why they are being treated differently and excluded from class. What makes this practice particularly objectionable is that it is completely unnecessary. Religious Instruction is an extra curricular activity and were it actually taught as such after school hours this discriminative behaviour would not need to occur at all. Under the current system little thought is spared for the feelings of the non participating children as the schools are allowed to, and frequently do, put a religious group’s interests before their wellbeing. I would like to see this section of the law revised and clear instruction given to schools that Religious Instruction can only take place entirely outside of school hours and not during the school day.
The practice of Religious Instruction impinges on the right to religious freedom (Section 19, Bill of Rights Act) and the right to hold beliefs without interference (Section 13) because Section 79 of the Education Act makes it an opt out rather than in system. The school has no right to interfere with the guardianship of peoples children and peoples ethical or religious beliefs by assuming tacit agreement with Religious Instruction. The programs are not entirely voluntary if explicit approval form caregivers isn’t obtained, all the school has under the opt out system is specific disapproval. Moreover, since the school endorses the program many people seem to feel uncomfortable to speak up against it because of fear of a negative backlash, ie fear of discrimination. We have a choice about bringing our children to church, school however is compulsory. Moreover, children come to school to get an education, when the school sees fit to use children for unintended purposes, such as potential converts for a religion, it amounts to little more than exploitation and contravenes the Care of Children Act. I believe the opt out system is deeply unethical and needs to be reviewed.
If a school ran a special interest program for ‘whites’ only I believe it would be met with public outrage and immediately disallowed, and rightly so. If we can agree on that it is not right to segregate and discriminate based on race why is it then that segregation and discrimination based on religious or ethical belief is allowed in the public education system?
I look forward to your response