When I tell a Christian that religious instruction classes at primary schools are a form of discrimination, I invariably get scoffed at. However, it’s actually quite easy to explain how bringing Christian religion into a primary school discriminates against all the other non-Christian kids. First, let’s define what discrimination is;
What is Discrimination?
In human social affairs, discrimination is treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing is perceived to belong to rather than on individual merit. source: Wikipedia
Clearly, discrimination is not always a bad thing. Most people would consider that discriminating in favour of people in wheel chairs by building ramps instead of stairs does not adversely affect people who aren’t in wheelchairs. In a school environment, this is a great thing as it encourages inclusiveness and diversity and kids get to learn and grow up with an understanding of people with different lives and abilities to theirs.
Is religious instruction in primary schools, discrimination?
Based on the above definition, we need to answer a just one question; Do children from Christian families receive religious instruction at the expense of children who are not from Christian families? The answer is clearly “yes”, for a number of different reasons.
- Non-Christian families are forced to make the difficult choice of either allowing their kids to be taught beliefs that they don’t agree with, or opting them out of the class and deal with the stigma of being “different”. Most seem to allow their kids to stay in the class so that they fit in. This is a form of coercion.
- Because most of the RI classes run during the normal school day, this means that the kids are losing out on normal teaching time. Under the law, this can be up to 20 hours a year. Over their primary school education, this could be up to 160 hours of class time that they miss out on.
- Primary schools are legally required to “close” to allow religious instruction classes to take place. So the school board of trustees is actually closing the school in favour to promote Christian religion.
- RI classes teach beliefs based on faith in the bible, not on evidence-based intellectual enquiry. Children are taught to accept ideas without proof rather than enquire and seek facts. This is against the very basis of our education system and in contradiction with the science class they may be having right after it!
- The state (that’s you, the tax payer) is directly supporting the activities of religious instruction providers by allowing them; access to primary school children, free use of the classrooms and use of other school resources. Although they should not be part of the classes, teachers are often still present and being paid while the classes take place.
“… it is not appropriate for schools that are publicly funded to try and make children accept particular religious beliefs…” (source)
Katrina Casey, Deputy Secretary
New Zealand Ministry of Education
Is Religious Instruction Legal?
It’s my belief that religious instruction classes in primary schools are illegal. You might say that they can’t be, because they have been happening all over the country for years. But the fact is that in the 1877 Education Act, our state primary schools were created to be “secular, compulsory and free”. This means that children are required to be at primary school and that the school should be non-religious.
From 1878 to 1964, this was the law but it was ignored by some Christians who continued to teach religious faith in state schools using the Nelson Education System that preceded the 1877 Education Act. During this whole period, RI classes were included illegally in many schools throughout the country. In the Education Act 1964, the right to close the school to teach religious faith was officially included in sections 77 and 78.
So then it’s legal?
On the basis of the right to close the school to teach religious beliefs, yes. However, this does not mean that religious instruction classes don’t fall foul of other laws. There was an Education and Science select committee recommendation to the Ministry of Education in 2006 that RI classes should only take place outside of normal school hours. This recommendation was ignored but it has a strong basis in law. In 2001, the MOE legal team was asked to look for contradictions between the Human Rights Act 1993 and the Education Act. What they found was that there was no defence against a claim of discrimination in relation to religious instruction classes. Given that a select committee and the Ministry’s own legal team have both recommended that religious instruction classes should be removed from state primary school education, I think that there is a strong Christian bias preventing this from happening.
Discriminating against others’ beliefs
The important thing to remember is that religious instruction classes do not teach facts. They are not a class “about Christianity”, they are a class instructing that belief in Christianity is the right thing and the only thing and that the bible is the source of all true knowledge about God. Imagine if we did this in a history class…
The NZ Land Wars of the 1860’s were a period of violent struggle. There are many who believe that we don’t teach children enough about this period of NZ history. But what if we taught the classes from the perspective of the British Empire of the time? What if we taught our school kids that the Maori natives should have been more grateful to the Empire? And that they deserved to lose their land to the Crown because they did not show due respect to the Queen?
Would teaching this one perspective on history be fair if we allowed Maori parents to opt their kids out if they disagreed with the classes? Isn’t this kind of discrimination exactly the same as religious instruction classes? All religions are just a perspective but Christian religious instruction classes teach their faith as fact.
Are RI Classes Morally Wrong?
If parents of school kids had a vote on whether or not we should include this imaginary history class, would that make it right if the white majority voted yes?
It’s for this reason that I think religious instruction classes are morally questionable. Why should our state education system allow access to any religious group? I suspect that if there were a push by Muslims or Scientologists to get the same access to primary schools kids that Christian groups currently enjoy, it would be rejected by school boards before it ever got to the point of public awareness. It’s this kind of unquestioned Christian privilege that allows the classes to continue.
Boards of trustees who decide to include religious instruction in their schools are coercing parents into allowing the teaching of a particular religious faith to their children or alternatively, segregating their children away from their friends who remain in the class. How is this encouraging the inclusiveness and diversity that our schools aspire to?
Simply because something is commonly accepted, it does not mean it’s legal. The Secular Education Network is actively working to remove this kind of religious discrimination in schools. You can find out more by visiting their website or joining their facebook community.
Please comment below and let me know what you think!