Should we vote on religious instruction in primary schools?

My Daughter’s primary school has just sent out a survey that includes a question about religious instruction. It was a great improvement on past surveys. At least there’s no appeal to apathy with a “don’t mind” option like there was in the previous survey! Here’s a screenshot of the question;

maungatapere religious education survey

However, there’s a number of issues with the survey that deserve attention.

This blog is part of a story about my experience with religious education in my Daughter’s school. If you missed the start of it, you can find the beginning here.

There’s no balanced information provided

The question was obviously created with guidance from the Churches Education Commission (who provide the classes), as they use their terminology and link to their website, which is intended to promote the classes. The only information made available to parents is from the people who want to provide the bible in schools syllabus. I’ve previously asked the school twice for copies of the teacher guides for their syllabus and have been ignored both times. I’ve also directly contacted the CEC and been ignored when asking for the same thing. Their website does provide a (promotional) overview of the classes but it doesn’t go into detail.

Note: If you ever ask your children’s school for a copy of the material and don’t get the teacher’s guide, ask specifically for it. Otherwise, you’ll only get some fluffy overview that they provide to show parents how “harmless” it is. The teacher’s guide has much more detail on what is actually being taught.

There is a brief mention of a secular values programme in the survey question but there’s no link to more information about it. The inevitable response I get when I ask for details is that I am welcome to come and sit in the class. That doesn’t respond to the question, is inconvenient and shouldn’t be necessary.

Unfortunately, the Churches Education Commission website has been offline the last couple of days, so parents couldn’t find out more about those classes anyway.

cec website offline

They’ve missed out on some facts

You might think that it’s great that there’s a secular values class? I agree with you but I do wonder why it’s necessary? Secular values are already required teaching as part of the official school curriculum. The fact is, that the secular values class only exists to occupy the opt-out kids because they had to leave their own classroom due to the weekly visit from Christian evangelists. If all we want to do is teach kids values, then we don’t really need the bible classes at all, do we? In fact, because the class is considered extra-curricular, the school is still required to teach the secular values in the curriculum anyway.

Another thing that they’ve forgotten to mention, is that no child is required to be at the school while these classes are running. Why? Because by law, the school has to close to allow bible classes to take place at all. NZ state primary schools are required to be secular (non-religious) and so can’t be open while religion is being promoted. Conveniently for the evangelists, school starts at 8.50am and closes for the bible classes between 9am and 9.30am, so there’s a nice captive audience of kids whose parents need to be at work. Presumably, the teachers are voluntarily supervising the kids as they aren’t under contract during this time. It seems dishonest, doesn’t it? This privileged access to children that religious groups throughout the country have gained, is provided free and funded by the tax-payer.

It should also be noted that the law that allows bible classes provides for “religious instruction”, not “religious education”. That’s because religious education can be taught by any teacher, as it is fact-based and not faith-based. “Religious Instruction”, is by definition, a promotion of faith-based religious beliefs. Regardless, this survey and the CEC continue to use the wrong term to try and associate religious indoctrination with “values education”.

They say in the survey question, that there are “songs, drama, stories, teaching and working from activity books”. What they don’t say is that children are taught creationism, that a god exists (their specific version of a god) and that he made them, that the bible is how you find out about their god and how children are invited to pray with the bible teacher. This is not “education”, it is evangelism.

The CEC claim that their bible teachers are not evangelising but that is a blatant lie. Here’s a quote from their national director a few years ago.

“Churches by and large have not woken up to the fact that this is a mission field on our doorstep. The children are right there and we don’t have to supply buildings, seating, lighting or heating. It’s an opportunity we should grab hold of.”
(David Mulholland – National Director of the CEC. source: 2011 article in the Baptist Newsletter)

They didn’t correct previous misleading information

This is a great improvement on previous surveys but to put this in context, many of the parents have already seen surveys from 2011 and 2014 where the school claimed that;

  • The classes were “religious studies” – They’re not academic study at all, they promote religious faith
  • The classes were “approved by the Ministry of Education” – (they’re not)
  • The classes were “interdenominational” – They only represent the beliefs of some Christian denominations and no other religions

When I pointed out that the claim of the classes being “Ministry of Education approved” was false, they then continued to claim that the classes followed “Ministry of Education guidelines”. The problem is that the MOE doesn’t provide any guidelines on religious instruction and in fact refuses to, despite agreeing to provide them in 2015. After I asked to see the guidelines, they showed me a photocopy from a book printed in the 1960s.

How can we expect a school community to fairly vote on something when they;

  1. have not been providing honest and unbiased information.
  2. are basing their vote on “knowledge” from previous misleading claims that were never corrected.

This sort of thing happens at many schools where religious people consider it their right to promote their faith. Personally, I think it’s dishonest and ironically… immoral. It’s also insulting to parents and teachers who on the whole, do a great job teaching children values without the need for any divine guidance from people who claim to know more than the rest of us about what is good for our children.

They discouraged negative responses

Unlike previous surveys, this one containing the question about religious instruction requires parents to enter their email addresses to complete the form. I’ve already heard from a parent who is reluctant to vote against the bible classes because it requires them to “out” themselves. And this is from someone whose children are currently in the classes!

The school simply doesn’t (want to?) understand how coerced parents feel into allowing their children to enter bible classes. Several parents expressed their amazement at the vitriol directed at me when I tried to have the classes removed a couple of years prior. Seeing how I was treated, only confirmed their fears of opting their children out and identifying themselves by providing a contact email.

When questioned, the school said that it was to prevent multiple responses to the same survey. If the survey had been set up properly, parents could remain anonymous and also only be allowed one vote.

What about choice?

“Choice” is often raised in the religious instruction debate as if it is something that is indisputably good. But our primary schools were created specifically to be “free, compulsory and secular” back in 1877 because people of that time did not want religious groups to fight over access to children. Now that the various Christian denominations are more in agreement about what is good for us, does that mean providing access to indoctrinate children is now right? I don’t think so.

Voting on religious instruction is not providing a choice. It is a vote to force all children to stop their curriculum studies so that some children can be indoctrinated in religious faith. Isn’t that what churches are for?

Bible classes provided by the CEC start by teaching 5-year-olds that they, and the whole world, was made by God. None of this is taught as “just a story”. It is all presented without question or opposing views. Should we be voting on “flat earth” classes if lots of parents believe that the earth is flat? We have the right to our own beliefs but we do not have the right to our own facts.

Why should we be voting at all?

Finally, what is this a vote about and why are we having it anyway? It’s often presented as a vote about religion but it shouldn’t be.

Christianity is not being oppressed. There are half-empty churches all over the country. They’re not empty because atheists are rushing into their churches and trying to convert their members! People are not stopped from attending church and schools don’t tell children there’s no god.

This is a vote on whether or not to close a primary school to allow a small minority of evangelical Christians to promote their religious faith to children. Aside from the contradiction of teaching values on the basis of a discriminatory vote, these evangelists make all Christians look intolerant and aggressive. Most children are not in a position to dispute what they are being told. It is a clear case of religious indoctrination. Christian evangelists are attempting (often successfully) to impose their religious faith on to secular primary schools. You shouldn’t let it happen in your school any more than you should let a political party give the kids a weekly lesson on how great their policies are.

Is it right to have a vote that allows some parents to discriminate against other people’s children and impinge on their right to be free of religious pressure? Isn’t this the point of having a Human Rights Act? Isn’t it there to protect minorities, so that people can’t vote their rights away?

This is something that evangelists have been abusing for decades. Consider this quote from Jacinda Ardern when she was asked about Sharia Law in New Zealand.

We need to protect the separation of church/religion and state, as vigorously as we defend the right of individuals to practice their own religion in a way that doesn’t impinge on the freedom of others.
Jacinda Ardern – NZ Herald (29th November 2015)

How can we see things this way so clearly with regard to Islamic religious practice and yet allow Christian evangelicals to walk unfettered into secular state primary schools? Christians can already freely practice their religious faith in the church, yet our children have to stop classes so they can promote their faith in secular state schools as well!

It’s a no-brainer… right? Let me know what you think below!

The Results

At the time of writing, the full results have not been published. This is the text relevant to the RI question sent out in the last school newsletter…

Thank you to everyone that responded to the questionnaire. Comments will be reviewed, though the majority results lead to the status quo…

Religious Education was closer [than the other questions] with 54% wanting it to continue. Our revised school charter will be sent out to the community next week as the final result of our consultation this year and you are welcome to comment or provide feedback.

Given that they did not allow survey participants the opportunity to comment on the religious instruction question, and have used their favourite “status quo” (do nothing) phrase, it seems highly unlikely that anything will change. Kids will still have to stop learning the curriculum and leave their own classroom, so that “bible teachers” can come in and indulge themselves in a bit of harmless religious indoctrination at the expense of the taxpayer, secular education, our kids teaching time and human rights.

April 2018 Update

Full results were never published but we had a surprising first term, with the luxury of no religious instruction at all. That’s an extra five hours of classroom learning. I think the kids gained an extra IQ point!

Yesterday a notice came home with the dreaded religious instruction notice for term two with some encouraging changes;

  • It was titled “Religious Instruction” instead of “Religious Education”.
  • It was stated the classes were “Christian”.
  • The CEC was stated as the provider of the syllabus. (Although they were called the Christian Education Commission instead of the actual title of Churches Education Commission)
  • The syllabus was named as “Life Choices”.
  • Parents were told the school is “closed” for the lessons.
  • Years 7 and 8 are not included.
  • The RI classes will only run for terms 2 and 3.

So, there were a number of improvements. The classes are not being misrepresented. They’re being called what they really are and parents have more accurate information. While this still doesn’t justify closing a secular primary school in order to promote religion to children, at least the situation is clearer.

The downsides are;

  • Parents are still required to take action to contact the office and take their children out.
    This is still coercion to not take action, as it involves an awkward phone call to the office responsible for promoting the classes in the first place and in effect, telling them you don’t like their decisions. I know multiple parents at the school who don’t opt-out for just that reason.
  • Classes are not opt-in.
    If religious instruction classes are in the school, parents should be required to opt their children into them. Why on earth should a non-religious school assume parents want religious instruction. In the case of my kid’s school, parents do enrol with an “RE” choice but no information is provided, so it’s an uninformed choice and assumed to continue year in, year out.
  • Kids are still forced to lose teaching time to religious instruction classes.
    Even if you don’t want to be involved, your kids still have to put the school books down while the other kids get their brains washed. Can’t have those heathen kids getting ahead!
  • Religious Instruction classes are still in school time.
    Again, this is coercive, as the children are a captive audience. Evangelists get access to the school grounds and children are segregated based on their parent’s religious views.
  • Cognitive dissonance.
    RI classes teach children to believe things without evidence. That’s the definition of religious faith. The other classes in the curriculum encourage the children to have enquiring minds and to ask hard questions. Quite a contradiction in education!

This blog is part of a story about my experience with religious education in my Daughter’s school. If you missed the start of it, you can find the beginning here.

November 2021 Update

It’s incredible to think that it’s now six years since I first complained about religious instruction at my daughter’s school in 2015! A lot changed over that time. At our local school, bible in schools was reduced down to two terms in 2019. Then it disappeared entirely in 2020, probably as much due to covid-19 as anything else. And in 2021, the lessons didn’t come back. One of the biggest impacts was a change to the legislation allowing religious instruction that was updated to require parents to opt-in their children via a signed authority. Children no longer need to be opted out.

However, I’m not going to celebrate yet. Even though many schools have removed religious instruction classes (Schools with RI are down to less than 25% of secular state schools at the time of writing), the legislation still allows them to take place and there are still religious groups attempting to gain access to school children.







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