Paul Bennett and his wife thought that they were doing the right thing by allowing their daughter to attend religious instruction classes at Point View School in Howick, Auckland. The idea was that she would learn about different religious views and they could discuss it at home. However, in 2011, she came home and said that the Bible teacher had told her in front of her class that she was “going to hell” because she didn’t believe in God. Paul wasn’t going to do nothing. After 5 years of actively seeking change, the board of trustees have voted to remove the religious instruction classes from the school day. Or have they?
Tell me something about yourself. Did you have bible classes as a school kid?
I’m originally from the UK, but was abroad from 2 to 8 years old due to my dad who was working for the British Government overseas. when we returned to the UK in 1974 I attended a UK state primary school and then a state secondary school. As was the norm at the time we had compulsory Religious Instruction that included bible readings, hymns and prayers in school assemblies. In secondary we also had RI lessons taken by school staff was and still is a compulsory element of the UK Curriculum. In these lessons we studied the bible and often had really healthy discussions about what the meaning was behind the passages.
How did you find Religious Instruction in New Zealand differs to what you experienced in the UK?
That’s an interesting one as when we originally enrolled our youngest daughter to Point view I quizzed them about the RI element as it was in the enrolment form and as parents we had to indicate if we wanted our child to attend or not. I think it was the office staff and they just said that it used bible stories to promote values and support moral education in the pupils. This was about eight years ago. My wife and I actually used the sessions as a starting point for family discussions around the dinner table to talk about what they were learning and how that might contrast with what other people believe in relation to other religions and also none belief. It only became a real concern to us when our youngest daughter got to year 4 and after telling the BIS instructor that she didn’t believe in God, she was told by the instructor in front of the entire class that she would be going to hell then. This subsequently also caused some peer group bullying where other children would also tell her that she was going to go to hell because she didn’t believe in God. It was at this point that we decided to opt her out of the RI sessions for the remaining two years that she had been at the school.
Is that how you ended up appearing in a NZ Herald article in 2013?
In a way. That incident prompted me to start questioning the status quo around BIS. By 2013 I had become involved with the SEN (Secular Education Network) and had already distributed generic SEN leaflets that Peter Harrison had created with money from the NZ Rationalists when the SEN was first created.
Then in 2013 the School Board Elections were coming up and I knew that the new Boards often review existing policies at that time. So I created specific flyers that targeted Point View School by name and began distributing them in their school home zone. In addition to that, I was contacted by e-mail from the Principal who had noted comments I had made on the SEN FB page in relation to her school and felt we should meet in person to better understand my concerns. The meeting highlighted the school’s main concern that they felt I had misrepresented them and their position both on-line in my comments and also in the flyer I had been distributing.
I then requested that I be allowed to present the SEN perspective to the new Board and posted an online retraction and apology for aspects that the school had felt I had got wrong. Prior to the meeting with the Board that I had requested, I received a formal letter from the Board that I felt made veiled threats to the police being involved and the school’s lawyers in relation to what I had done and said, given that I asked the SEN for support and Jeff McClintock attended the meeting with me and the Board as my support person.
The new Board then decided that it would survey the parents of the school in relation to the position of BIS at the school which would include info from CRE as well. Given that I asked if I could speak at another Board meeting prior to that where I would have asked if the SEN could also have information included in the survey, but was told that I had been given an opportunity to speak already. Given this, I then contacted the SEN again and David Hines arranged for the story that ran in the NZ Herald. Then David Hines, Jeff McClintock and a couple of other SEN supporters helped distribute SEN info to parents at Point View to provide our perspective. This included an open letter written by me.
Was that hard on you and your family? I’ve found that school communities can be quite hostile to complaints about Religious Instruction.
Yeah, I know what you mean. I personally have a thick skin, but I was very concerned for our youngest daughter’s well being as she was still at the school, albeit in her last year. Having said that, we also had a number of parents come up to us and offer their support for the stance I had taken, although they themselves were not willing to go public with their own concerns for fear of the kind of backlash you’re talking about. I also received more subtle forms of pressure, such as a large number of religious leaflets suddenly appearing in my letter box. Unfortunately that were anonymous, but had Elim Church as the contact address for distribution. I attempted to contact someone at Elim, but apart from replies about how much Jesus loved me, I didn’t really make any progress on that front and to be fair to the church they could have come from anyone connected with them.
The fear other parents have of speaking out is an example of why RI classes are so destructive. Did you find that as awareness grew, more people were willing speak out?
I wouldn’t say that I personally saw evidence of people openly supporting what I was doing, but it is interesting to note that during the entire three years that I have been campaigning against Bible in Schools at Point View, that there has been a steady decline form 75% participation to the projected 66% that they expect next year.
Did you feel that the Board of Trustees was interested in actively promoting the Religious Instruction classes or just continuing past decisions as a school tradition?
This is a hard one to call, as I think some of their initial resistance to what I did was to do with protecting the school rather than actually being willing to investigate the issues I was bringing up. Tellingly, when I passed on objective, independent, expert criticism of the material they were using, such as the reviews by Marion Maddox in Australia and then more recently by Paul Morris here in NZ, the Board dismissed them as being subjective opinions, even though each one is an internationally recognised expert in the field of RE. It was only when I tabled the Ministry of Education Documentation that Tanya Jacob had obtained, that showed that even the MOE’s own legal team felt there were real issues and concerns in relation to Bible in Schools and pupils Human Rights did I truly feel that they took real notice of what I was saying.
How were the Religious Instruction classes removed from the school day?
The Board simply took a vote at the last meeting which I attended and quite frankly I was really surprised as they had given no indication that that was the direction they were going in until that moment. Going forwards I intend to keep attending their Board meetings as they also made it very clear that they would like to see Bible in Schools continue in some form at the school, either outside school hours or during lunchtimes.
As in many cases, Paul was virtually alone in being willing to stand up against the school and fight his case. RI classes discriminate against families with other beliefs. Considering that the Board of Trustees are still in favour of Bible in Schools and have stated that they would like to see the classes continue either before school or in lunch time, do you think that continuing to allow school boards with a religious bias make decisions on religious instruction is fair for all New Zealanders? Please comment below!