Will Schools Review Coercive Religious Instruction Practices?

child carrying teddy bearGiven the recent guidelines issued by the Ministry of Education, it will be interesting to see if schools who aren’t currently following these best practices will review the way they offer religious instruction classes. Opaheke School, in Papakura (Auckland), is one such school that seems intent on promoting religion within their secular school, despite parent concerns.

In July 2018, I emailed Opaheke School about the way that their Board of Trustees views religious instruction after noticing a discussion about an email from a parent recorded in the April 2018 BOT meeting minutes. Here is the minute of their discussion of the “parent request”.

Bible Classes (Parent Request)

A parent did not know about the Bible Classes and they did not get a chance for their child to opt out. The parent wanted it to be an opt in process rather than an opt-out process. Bible Classes are 1 hour per week for year 4-6 students.

Discussions were had around what to do next year. There were quite a few opt outs this year but there was still a full class from each syndicate participating. Staffing is easy to manage either way, other children do other activities such as arts. It was felt that these classes were valuable for children to understand even one religion to given them an appreciation and idea of how other people in the world may think. There is concern over how small the classes may get if it is an opt-in process. Religion is not a school requirement and students can opt out at any time. We may need to increase communication around what is decided for these classes next year.

An email to Opaheke School

I understand that your board of trustees has recently been reviewing religious instruction in your school.

I note that your BOT minutes raise the following points;

“… these classes are valuable to understand even one religion…”

If the view is that children would benefit from academic teaching about religion, I would agree with you. However, the nature of Bible classes is that they are effectively a Sunday School, where children are taught about how good Christian faith is in a non-academic, non-critical way. There is no discussion as to the truth of what they are taught. That is why the classes are only able to be taught under sections 78-79 of the Education Act 1964.

  • Do you tell parents that the school is closed for the duration of the classes?
  • Are parents informed that the classes allow faith teaching and are not academic?
  • Are parents aware that children may be encouraged to join in prayers?

“… there is concern over how small the classes may get if it is an opt-in process…”

Why is this a concern? Opaheke School is a secular state primary school. It is not the job of the staff or the board of trustees to promote or support any religious faith. Children should have the right to an education free of religious influence in the non-religious school that their parents chose for them. Values are required to be taught within the official school curriculum. I assume your teachers are already fulfilling this requirement?

“Religion is not a school requirement and students can opt out at any time.”

For religious instruction to be included in the school, the board of trustees has to choose their preferred religion and then vote to allow it into the school. As a consequence of this discriminatory action, non-Christian families are then placed into the awkward position of either having to opt their children out of the classes and potentially stigmatise themselves and their children or allow their children into the classes in the hope that they will fit in, avoid being bullied and not be indoctrinated. Not a choice many would like to make.

There is no consideration in allowing families to opt their children out. In fact, it ignores their right to their own religious freedom and forces a choice on them that they have already made outside the school.

On the other hand, there is an option to opt in to religious instruction. It is called “going to church”. It’s something that is free and available to anyone who wants it. It is a form of direct discrimination under the Human Rights Act 1993 to bring religious instruction into a secular state school. I have attached advice from Crown Legal to the Ministry of Education stating this. See sections highlighted, in particular paragraph 17.

I am perplexed as to how you justify closing a non-religious school that is supposed to be welcoming to all children to promote the beliefs of families from one religious group?

The Response

The email above was sent on July 9th 2018. I didn’t receive a reply, so I resent the email on 24th July. There was never any reply. However, there is a note in their minutes of the 31st July meeting.

Religious Instruction

Discussed email Sean received from a parent and Board agreed all points are reasonable and will be actioned in future.

Bible classes are only half an hour per week, not one hour as advised at the 10th April BOT meeting.

The email itself is not in the minutes, so I don’t know if they are referring to my email or another one.

A notice went out to parents at the beginning of the term on 1st February 2019 about Bible in Schools. It included a standard promotional message from the Churches Education Commission and explained some of the practicalities of the programme. However, while they pointed out that the classes are optional, the way in which parents are required to opt out is pretty coercive.

The programme is optional. You must opt-out your child each year even if they have previously been opted out. Opting-out on the enrolment form is not sufficient. All students not opted out of the programe will be attending.

Given that none of the concerns in my email were addressed in the new year newsletter, it seems that the “reasonable points” in the email they referred to may not be from my email!

It seems fairly obvious that repeatedly requiring a parent to take action to opt their children out of religious instruction classes is effectively endorsing the religion being promoted and is a biased action intended to coerce parents into allowing their children to attend. That is why the Ministry of Education guidelines state that schools should use an opt-in model.

Who is behind Bible Classes at Opaheke School?

Ian and Yvonne Fletcher promote the Churches Education Commissions CRE programme at Opaheke school. Ian’s 2019 letter to the Opaheke School Board of Trustees (see page 2 of this PDF) talks a lot about values, “life choices” and “exploring Christian beliefs” as if these classes were a form of academic study – they aren’t.

This misrepresentation of the aim of the classes is something that the CEC has been doing for decades. Note that the information to parents and the board of trustees says nothing at all about the promotion of Christian faith, which is absolutely the purpose of the lessons! If we wanted to promote values or teach kids about any particular religion, we don’t need church volunteers to do this. Teachers are quite capable! The only way these Bible Classes are allowed into the school is via the only remaining sections (78-81) of the Education Act 1964 that require schools to close in order to allow religious faith teaching in a school that is supposed to be secular (have no religious bias).

At this point, I think it’s prudent to point out that my criticism of Opaheke School’s policy on religious instruction is not about Ian or Yvonne personally. I’ve never met them. They and the BOT are doing what they think is right and what the law currently allows. However, that does not mean that it is right or that the law is fair or reasonable. What I will say, is that the way the school promotes religious instruction (as being about values and education) misrepresents the basis of the laws that allow it (religious faith teaching) and also contradicts what the Children’s Bible Ministries website says is their mission. This is relevant because Ian Fletcher has been active with CBM for over 20 years, first training with them in 1997. This is what the CBM website says about their mission (emphasis is mine)…

First, Ministry to children in camps, schools, churches and other outreaches, including slum ministries through our 80 staff in New Zealand, Singapore, India and the Philippines.

Second, Train and equip the body of Christ in effectively reaching, winning and nurturing children. This is done by imparting Biblical vision and practical skills through a variety of courses in ministry to children.

Third, Producing high quality, relevant, life changing resources that teachers and parents can use to lead children to Christ and disciple them to spiritual maturity.

This has been the vision and mission of CBM for the past fifty years and will continue to be as we believe that God has called us to be “Toolmakers to the body of Christ”

Note that there is nothing illegal about what the CBM are doing and they aren’t misrepresenting what they do, unlike the CEC. However, in light of this approach and the fact that Ian Fletcher is their Operations Manager, why are parents being told that the classes are all about values and education instead of the truth, that the purpose of religious instruction is to encourage Christian faith in their children? Why aren’t parents told that the year 4-6 classes are legally required to be “closed” during religious instruction and that their children are not required to be there at all?

The bottom line is that our state primary schools should not be used as a mission field for religious groups to target vulnerable children. Boards of trustees should be protecting school children from religious pressures, not allowing their personal biases to affect a vote on whether or not to allow religious evangelists access to children. If a local politician wanted weekly access to children to promote their politics with a view to encouraging what they consider to be good values and create future voters, they would be laughed out of the school! But Christian evangelists somehow get a pass! It’s cynical and it’s wrong and parents need to stand up and complain about it. If you would like to find out more or ask questions, please do so on this website or join the Secular Education Network’s facebook page.

Update 6th September 2019 – Opaheke School sent out a link to a School Survey in a newsletter on 28th August 2019 that included a question about religious instruction. The question is below. It’s great that they are giving parents the opportunity to tell them what they think. My concern is that the survey would be used to justify the continuation of the classes if there is a majority vote in favour of religious instruction. If so, this would be an abdication of the responsibilities of the board to ensure that the school is inclusive and welcoming to all families. A majority vote does not justify the promotion of any religious views and the inherent discrimination against the minority.

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