The following is my submission on the draft guidelines on religious instruction (683kb pdf) proposed by the Ministry of Education. Due to work commitments, it’s not as comprehensive or well formed as I would have liked, so please excuse any omissions or mistakes. It was written in just a few hours.
There are a number of obvious problems with the Ministry of Education providing guidelines on religious instruction. I will respond to them in order…
1. Use community consultation to inform decision-making
This guideline passes responsibility for allowing religious instruction to a local community and encourages a decision based on popular opinion instead of a decision based on reason and the values that the Ministry of Education promote. This allows a majority to impose their religious views on a secular school and impact on the education of all children. It is divisive and disruptive. A popular vote does not decide what is right or moral and community consultation does not justify promotion of religion within a secular state school.
2. Provide full and accurate information to students, families and whānau to help them make informed decisions
I have seen this guideline “fulfilled” before by schools. What they do is offer promotional material from the Churches Education Commission for their deceptively misnamed Christian “Religious Education” classes. Not only does the material give the impression that the classes are all about values but the title implicitly states that they are “religious education” and not “religious instruction”. There is no indication at all in any material they provide that children will be taught the Christian god exists that he created the world, that Jesus is his son or that classes include prayers children are invited to join in.
This “full and accurate information” that you expect to be provided will be offered by the same Board of Trustees who have considered and approved of the religious instruction classes enough to try and promote them in the school. I find it highly unlikely (and have never seen) any board would offer any material giving reasons against religious instruction. An informed decision cannot be made by only viewing promotional material.
3. Offer valid education alternatives to religious instruction
This guideline again makes a mockery of a secular state school education by “suggesting” that religious instruction be held outside of normal school hours. Clearly, this is something that should be happening as a matter of course, at a place and time of the parent’s choosing. Teachers already have a heavy workload and expecting them to come up with a syllabus for a secular values class on top of their existing duties is absurd. Likewise, requiring parents to take time away from their normal day to create and be involved in a class that only exists due to the imposition of religion on the school is insulting.
Despite your interpretation of the laws allowing religious instruction your scenarios do not display the options for alternative programmes properly. Section 78 of the Education Act 1964 does not require the entire school to close during the class. While children that do opt out are generally required to stop their curriculum learning so that the children involved in religious instruction do not miss out on anything, they are not required to by law. The “valid alternative” is simply not necessary. If some children want to go off and do a religious instruction class, the students that do not attend should not be forced to stop their curriculum learning. This is inherently discriminatory. It is saying; “I want to study the bible, so you have to stop learning”. Students attending religious instruction should have to make up the lost teaching time and not affect other students who are not involved.
4. Require signed consent for religious instruction
The biggest problem with signed consent is the aforementioned lack of information provided regarding the case against religious instruction. Religious adherents will always consent and non-religious parents will be handed a pamphlet promoting the classes and have to search for any information against them.
This guideline also contradicts the law regarding religious instruction. There is no requirement for the school to change to an opt in model. The law only allows the ability to opt out, so the student is considered to be part of the class unless the parents specifically opt them out.
5. Use volunteers who are not school staff members to lead religious instruction
This has long been the stance of the NZEI in an effort to protect their members from conflicts involving religion. However, it does not address the problem of children being confused about the place of religious instruction in the school. The children are, after all, in their school. The teacher is normally present in the class while the children are being taught religious faith as fact. Obviously, when their teacher is present in their normal place of learning, what they are being taught must be true. It is only logical for the child to think that. Why would anyone be teaching them an opinion based on faith as if it were fact when everything else they learn is considered “true”? Removing the teacher removes the “borrowed authority” the church volunteer gains while the teacher is present but it subjects children to unsupervised evangelism from an individual who is not monitored by the MOE or the ERO. Teachers should not be asked to step aside and pretend that they are not validating what is being taught in their classroom. It is an insult to the teacher and their profession.
6. Provide secular school and student support services
This is a great guideline! But why should it be a guideline at all? Our schools should be secular and so religious groups should not be providing support or counselling services and there certainly should be no chaplaincy. The recommendation against connections with religious instruction providers only exposes the concern regarding religious infiltration of schools as a whole. Why would it be ok for a Baptist church to run religious instruction and a Brethren church to provide a counsellor???
7. Perform safety checks on volunteers
This is a bit of a no-brainer as it is already required.
8. Communicate to families and whānau the complaints procedure and use that complaints procedure to resolve issues
I have personal experience of complaining to both the school and the Ministry of Education and found them to be obstructive and generally supportive of the “status quo” rather than willing to address the principles underlying complaints about religious instruction. School boards should not be able to make decisions regarding the promotion of religious beliefs within a secular state school. The integrity of our secular schools and government should be recovered by the termination of the Education Act 1964 and any other acts of parliament that allow religious privilege within what should be secular organisations.
These are only guidelines
A school with a religious bias that wishes to promote their favourite religion can ignore them with impunity. As long as the law allows secular schools to promote religion, the school can promote any religious beliefs they choose in any way they choose to. Guidelines actually do nothing.
They don’t cover other aspects of religious promotion
What about prayers at assembly, hymns or the inevitable insertion of religious observances by over-zealous teachers?
They only cover primary and intermediate schooling
These guidelines have no bearing on either early childhood education nor high schools. Children within a state school or a non-religious state-funded facility should not have to be concerned about religious agendas affecting their educational experience.
The goal of religious instruction undermines effective education
Religious instruction is effectively the antithesis education. Religious instruction has the aim of convincing children to believe in one specific god, whereas education about religion teaches children about what gods people believe in. Religious instruction is contrary to the very purpose of education. It would be like a music teacher only ever taught children that Boy George was the best musical artist of all time, to live according to his beliefs and never teach them about any other music.
The law allowing religious instruction is ridiculous
Our secular school system is made laughable by provisions within the Education Act 1964, which allow the school to “close” for religious instruction. My wife would not agree that I am married and monogamous only while I’m wearing my wedding ring and I don’t think a school can just flip a switch from being secular to suddenly being a place to promote religion to children who are effectively a captive audience.
The goals of evangelical churches are being misrepresented or ignored
You would have to be incredible gullible or wilfully ignorant to believe that churches are only interested in promoting good values to children in a religious instruction class. New Zealand evangelical churches have repeatedly identified young children as being a target of their ministries. The Lausanne Movement is an international group that produced a document called “The Evangelisation of Children” that specifically comments on the access churches have to primary school children in New Zealand. Among the authors is a representative from the Elim Church who is one of the main players in the Churches Education Commission, who claim that school Bible classes are not a form of evangelism.
Government should not support religion
While we have no official separation of church and state, we should do within our education system. No government department should be involved in providing guidelines or justifying the promotion of religion to children in a secular school.
The guidelines undermine MOE curriculum values
The guidelines undermine many of the curriculum values that the Ministry of Education promote. Promoting one religious faith;
- Does not value diversity within the school community.
- Does not value equity by treating everyone fairly within the school.
- Does not value community, but instead creates divisiveness.
- Does not value integrity of education. Instead promoting religious beliefs over evidence-based reason.
- Does not value respect for others. Instead imposing some people’s religious views on a secular school community.
While the law applies to all religions, the reality is that virtually all religious instruction classes in secular state primary schools are Christian with a tendency toward more evangelical and fundamental Christian beliefs.
Some of what is taught completely contradicts curriculum science teaching and certainly contradicts the teaching of reason and critical thinking. The lessons are not taught as something to be questioned or critiqued, they are taught as correct and true.
Some of the values taught are contradictory to what most of us would consider to be “good values”. For instance, the whole “killing someone to atone for the wrong-doings of others” basis of Christianity is probably something that most people don’t carry over into their every day life. Likewise, a belief system where punishing someone for all eternity if they break the rules is not something that I want to encourage in my 5 and 8 year old girls.
The experience of children and families affected by religious instruction within a state primary school speaks for itself. It took over 6 years of complaints and a high court case before Red Beach School eventually removed religious instruction. Parents are not fully informed and are often misled. Minorities are ignored. Children who opt out receive second-rate supervision and activities and have to deal with the stigma of being different as opting out of religious instruction often creates negative attention.
Finally, guidelines from the MOE will do nothing to change the inherent discrimination faced by non-Christians who may be out-numbered by Christians in a rural school community who believe their religious values should be promoted within the school. The recommendations do not change the fact that the guidelines support the division of the school community along the lines of religious beliefs. Religious instruction is the promotion of some people’s religious faith within a secular school. This is at the inconvenience of non-Christian children and families who are forced to not only identify themselves as disagreeing with what is being taught but have to inform the school to remove their children from their own classroom while outside religious volunteers take over their classroom to promote their beliefs. In some schools, this can mean being alone or part of only a small number of children who are opted out. This can be frightening and isolating. It not only makes children a target for bullying by their peers but is in fact, state-supported religious bulling, which you are supporting by providing guidelines to continue the practice. Solve the problem and remove religious instruction entirely.