Human Rights Commission Ignore Religious Discrimination in Secular Primary Schools

human rights commission religious instruction

human rights commission religious instructionThe Human Rights Commission sounds like a great idea doesn’t it? They do a good job of raising awareness about racial discrimination, attitudes to LGBTQ people, transgender people, religious diversity and champion the rights of individuals in the workplace. You would think that protecting the rights of our children to an education free from religious pressures in a secular state primary school would be an absolute no-brainer. But when it comes to this issue, the Human Rights Commission have shown themselves to be negligent, evasive and cowardly.

The Secular Education Network has been campaigning for years to have the discriminatory practice of religious instruction removed from secular state primary schools. Vulnerable children as young as five are subjected to “Bible Classes” led by evangelical church volunteers who are allowed into the school by boards of trustees who abuse their power to promote their religious bias.  Teachers are legally required to step aside while this happens

The Human Rights Commission have been fully informed of the issue and SEN’s campaign. They were present at the Red Beach School court case where Jeff McClintock’s family were bullied and intimidated by the school. Their daughter was repeatedly made to participate in religious instruction classes after they had already opted her out, and isolated when she wasn’t in the class.

Many other parents have complained to the HRC. This is not an isolated incident. The HRC receive enough complaints about religious instruction that it is their third most common complaint regarding education.

Why hasn’t the Human Rights Commission ever made any public statement on the ethics of religious instruction?

If a school board of trustees voted to close a school in order to veer away from the official curriculum and teach children that the British Empire’s colonisation of New Zealand was a great deal for Maori and that they should be grateful for what they did for them, would it be fair as long as Maori kids had the choice to opt out? Of course not! It’s a view that anyone has the freedom to hold but it is not a view that respects the rights of children to be free from discrimination within the school. So when non-Christian children are forced to stop studying the official curriculum and go to another room to wait for their classmates to have their bible class, this is religious discrimination and something that the HRC should be coming down hard on.

Some of the Human Rights Commission’s own documents contradict their lack of action. They should pay more attention to their own Statement on Religious Diversity.

EDUCATION. Schools should teach an understanding of different religious and spiritual traditions in a manner that reflects the diversity of their national and local community

But religious instruction classes are overwhelmingly Christian bible classes and do not education about religion, they encourage belief in religious faith.

This HRC document is full of statements that contradict the reality of religious instruction in secular primary schools but the HRC remain mute. The HRC has been made aware that religious instruction is a form of direct discrimination under the Human Rights Act and they still do nothing, despite this statement in the above document.

THE RIGHT TO RELIGION. New Zealand upholds the right to freedom of religion and belief and the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of religious or other belief.

Is the HRC really avoiding this issue or am I exaggerating? If you go to the Human Rights Commission website and do a search for religious instruction, you will get a message saying “There were no results found” (As at 3rd July 2018). As shown above and by the frequent media reports on religious instruction, there is no way that the HRC isn’t aware that this is an issue.

The only reference I have ever been able to find of any HRC staff member even suggesting criticism of religious instruction is one by John Hancock, the Senior Legal Advisor at the Human Rights Commission, who took part in a meeting where groups were able to present to the Education & Science Select Committee.

Hancock went on to note that the provisions on religious instruction in schools in the 1964 Act were not addressed by the Bill. They had been in place for 50 years, the Commission had received complaints and they had been the subject of litigation. The Bill was an opportunity for the Committee to look at that.

Needless to say, the committee completely ignored his advice.

I’ve also contacted the Human Rights Commission about religious instruction. I emailed the Chief Commissioner, David Rutherford in July 2017 regarding an address that he was planning to give to the NZ School Trustees Association. The NZSTA have a stated religious bias, supporting the continuance of religious instruction in primary schools.

I got this response from one of their legal officers…

Our Chief Commissioner, David Rutherford, is speaking at the NZSTA Annual Conference on the topic of bullying.

You can read about the Human Rights Commission’s views on religion in schools at [this link]

However, that document doesn’t offer a view on religious instruction. It offers guidelines for its implementation under the law. It was drafted by Professor Paul Morris, who is on record as saying that the CEC syllabus is evangelical and inappropriate for non-Christian children.

Here’s a quote from the first page of the booklet;

“Schools must not discriminate against their students on the grounds of religious belief or lack of it…”

My Daughter’s primary school imposes Christian religious instruction on the whole school because a minority of evangelical Christians believe they need to teach us “Christian values”. This discriminates against all non-Christian families in the school because;

  1. We are either forced to publicly declare our lack of interest (and by implication, our religious views) in Christian faith or alternatively put our children into classes that we disagree with because we want them to fit in and not be different.
  2. My daughter loses 20 hours each year (160 hours over 8 years) of curriculum teaching because of a Christian bias at the school. Religious instruction classes force opt-out children out of their classroom, away from their friends and prevent them from continuing with their curriculum learning.

Clearly, both families and students are disadvantaged by religious instruction classes. Public comment on media reports about this issue is loud and clear. The response from the Human Rights Commission is silence.

The NZSTA outright refused to justify their decision to propose adjustments to legislation allowing religious instruction instead of recommending removal of religious instruction from the Education Act entirely. Given the impact that this has on non-Christian families (who are actually the majority), within our secular school system, how is this not an endorsement of bullying and entirely relevant to the Chief Commissioner’s address to them?  The NZSTA are institutional bullies who won’t even do me the courtesy of explaining themselves.

Like the NZSTA, the Human Rights Commission also made no recommendation to remove religious instruction in the 2017 Education Act review. Considering that complaints about religion are the third most common education-related complaint they receive (less than disability and race but more than sex-related complaints), why was there no attention given to this at all?

The Ministry of Education was given a report from their own legal team in 2001 stating that under the Human Rights Act 1993, there was no defence against a claim of direct discrimination regarding religious instruction. (See sections 15-18). I’m sure that the Human Rights Commission are aware of this, so why do they remain silent? Why are they so vocal on questions of racism or sexism but silent with regard to religious discrimination and indoctrination of children in secular state primary schools?

Who are they protecting? It sure isn’t my Daughter.

When I asked them all these questions, I got another response from the same legal officer.

We note your concerns. The Commission is currently engaged in legal proceedings on religion in schools, so it is inappropriate for us to engage in ongoing communication with you on this issue.

This is a ridiculous response and beneath the standards I expect from the Human Rights Commission. Just because an issue is difficult to deal with, that does not mean a Government agency can bullshit people into silence. (although they do seem to try rather a lot!)

So I asked them what legal proceedings they are engaged in and how it stops them from handling any complaints about religious instruction. I also asked if they would stop handling racism complaints if they were involved in legal proceedings over racism?

I had to follow up on my email three times over the following couple of weeks before I got a reply on 2nd Aug 2017) from the (above mentioned) Senior Legal Adviser to the Human Rights Commission, John Hancock. He said;

My apologies for the delay in getting back to your email of 24 July.

I note that in your email of 13 July 2017 you raise concerns about the practice of religious instruction in your daughter’s school. As you may be aware, it is open to you to make a complaint to the Commission about that practice. If you do want to proceed with a complaint, I am happy to refer your email to one of the mediators in our Enquiries and Complaints team.

I also note that in your email of 13 July you express concern that the Commission has been silent on the issue of religious instruction in state schools. Further to that concern, I’ve set out below some information that will hopefully provide you with a bit more information regarding the Commission’s activities in the area.

The Commission’s role in legal proceedings

In 2016, the Commission applied to intervene in the High Court case of McClintock v Attorney-General, which sought declarations that the provisions of the Education Act 1964 governing religious instruction in state primary schools were inconsistent with a number of rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. Unfortunately, the case is currently indefinitely stayed and the issues are yet to be determined. However, a very similar proceeding has been lodged in the Human Rights Review Tribunal and the Commission has intervened accordingly. In due course, the Commission will make submissions to the Tribunal identifying and discussing the relevant human rights considerations.

The Commission’s position on the Education Bill.

As you noted in your email of 13 July, the Commission did not make any substantive recommendations on the issue in its submission on the Education (Update) Amendment Bill. The Commission did state at paragraph 3 of the submission:

“the Commission notes that the Bill could have provided an opportunity to review the provisions of the Education Act 1964 concerning religious instruction in state primary schools. This is an issue of some contention within the community and has recently been subject to legal proceedings concerning the consistency of those provisions with human rights standards. It therefore might be timely for the Committee to consider and review the legal framework governing this area”.

The Commission also raised this point in its appearance before the Education and Science Committee regarding the Bill on 2 February 2017. The Commission stated that:

“The Commission considers that review of the legal framework governing this area (which is over 50 years old) is required and would encourage the Committee to consider this issue alongside the other areas covered in the Bill.”

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Kind regards

John Hancock | Senior Legal Adviser | Kaitohu Matua, Ture
Human Rights Commission  |  Te Kāhui Tika Tangata  |

In Jeff McClintock’s case, the HRC was only an interested party and did not pro-actively fight on his behalf. In fact, they seemed to have been next to useless in assisting Jeff in the case.  Here’s a quote from Jeff;

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in my court case, their lawyer never spoke to me, I don’t recall him saying ANYTHING in the entire case.

The “similar proceeding” that was lodged with the Human Rights Review Tribunal was one lodged by the Secular Education Network in 2016. As at July 2018, they have abandoned the tribunal and redirected their efforts into a high court case after waiting nearly two years for an initial hearing with the HRC that never eventuated. The HRC subsequently backed their case for a high court hearing. While this is encouraging, it seems like the HRC is avoiding responsibility for an issue that should have been addressed by them many years earlier.

I do really appreciate John’s response. However, I suspect that he is in a difficult position and there is more to this. My own experience of complaining about Religious Instruction to organisations in the education sector is one of avoidance and denial. There seems to be many government and education sector staff who have a Christian religious bias and are at a level high enough to suppress any attempts to change policy or legislation. Either that or they are fearful of the negative consequences of acting against Christian evangelism. I am currently a party to two investigations the Ombudsman are handling with regard to enquiries of the Ministry of Education where the MOE is refusing to give an honest answer to my questions.

This attitude is widespread and not just apparent in the Human Rights Commission;

  • The NZSTA flatly refuse to answer why they support religious instruction instead of requesting it be removed.
  • The NZEI have stated that their members have not shown an interest in RI but they have not surveyed them on it and they have made no attempt to engage on the issue. They also ignore complaints made by teachers about religious instruction.
  • The Ministry of Education refuses to take a stance on RI and actively block attempts to question it. It took 2 years to get access to an un-redacted copy of the document advising on the conflict of religious instruction legislation with the Human Rights Act.
  • The Education & Science Committee developed a report that recommended extensive changes to RI in 2005/6, which was completely ignored by the government.

Clearly, religious discrimination of children in secular state primary schools is far from a priority for these organisations.

The HRC is responsible for acting on issues of religious discrimination against children but has done absolutely nothing of any consequence and made no public statements against it. How can anyone reasonably consider the HRC to be fulfilling their responsibilities in this area?

The fact that my enquiries are being responded to by legal advisers instead of a Human Rights Commissioner in the role of children’s advocate, is indicative of the HRC’s attitude towards religious instruction. The evidence is overwhelming. Government departments, agencies and associated education industry bodies are washing their hands of this issue because they do not want to deal with it.

What do you think? Please share and comment below!


  1. Disgraceful. There is however, a very high probability that those at the top have a conflict of interest and just want this to go away.

    • Yes, I suspect that is the case. Also, there will be pressure on government agencies from politicians who don’t want to risk losing votes by addressing this issue.

  2. I agree that religious indoctrination of children in state schools is totally unacceptable. However Dave is attacking the wrong people. The problem is with s78 of the Education Act 1964. The HRC didn’t enact that section and nor does it have the power to repeal it. Only Parliament can do that. Instead of hassling HRC staff, he should focus all of his efforts on building political support for legislative change.

    • Hi Geoff,

      Thanks for commenting.

      The HRC asserts that freedom of religion is a human right and this is legislated under the Human Rights Act 1993. The HRC was set up to promote human rights in NZ and is supposed to advocate for human rights, provide legal representation and bring proceedings. The fact that they can’t personally change the legislation is irrelevant. They should be doing what SEN is doing or at the very least support them. So far, they have done *nothing*. Like I said… it’s a no-brainer.

      Regarding political support, this is a difficult avenue to go down. I have tried to do this but politicians are mostly too scared to stand up for an issue that is going to upset a chunk of their voters. Chris Hipkins said prior to being elected that he didn’t support religious instruction and that Labour was open to a review of it. Now that they are in power, he has asked the MOE to provide guidelines for religious instruction that would give some sort of endorsement of it. The MOE can’t do this in good faith as they have already been advised it is discriminatory.

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