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SocietyJuly 6, 2020

Movement against bible study in schools ramps up with court action and petition

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A new petition calling for an end to religious instruction in primary schools is part of a renewed campaign to make state schooling truly secular, reports Emily Writes.

Few people know about Section 54 of the Education and Training Bill, but Tanya Jacob does. That’s why she has authored a petition against it.

Jacob and The Secular Education Network hopes to raise awareness about the issues around Christian instruction in public schools. They say the Education and Training Bill, the 2020 update to the old Education Act, needs to be revised again. Section 54 allows schools to close for religious instruction and has been in the Education Act since the 1960s.

In their petition they state: “More than 30% of our secular, state primary schools, those with no religious affiliation, close for up to an hour a week, up to 20 hours a year. Church volunteers come and preach non-syllabus, non-Ministry of Education approved Christianity classes to young children.

“The only change made in the new Education and Training Bill is to make these classes opt-in, rather than opt-out. Schools can still allow these to take place and children will miss out on a total of six and a half weeks full-time learning over their primary education.”

Jacob says that teachers can join in and be paid for ‘bible in schools’ programmes rather than teaching their classes. “This makes a mockery of our state schools being ‘secular’, particularly in 2020 New Zealand, where more than 60% of New Zealanders are not Christian.”

The view that “schools are for teaching, not preaching” isn’t new. Many people have fought for the removal of religious recruitment from public schools. In a country as diverse in New Zealand it makes sense that the question is being asked: Why is only one religion being taught? And does it exclude children of other faiths?

“It’s religious privilege and nothing less than the state-sanctioned targeting of children by religious groups trying to spread their faith,” says Jacob, a long-time opponent of bible studies in schools. She belongs to the Secular Education Network (SEN), which is taking a case against school-based religious instruction to the Auckland High Court. So far, $34,000 has been donated for legal fees through Givealittle, to be matched by the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists. The court date is set down for two weeks from 12 October.

A 2019 survey by SEN found that children still receive single-faith religious instruction in one-third of New Zealand’s state primary schools. The organisation has a tool on its website that let’s you search for your child’s school and find out if it runs bible classes. Jacob says often parents don’t know their child is receiving Christian instruction. “The classes are frequently called ‘values’ classes, as if Christianity has an exclusive claim to values, and children often take part because of the singing, colouring in and provision of sweets that encourage attendance.”

Religious education classes often include fun activities like colouring in (Getty Images)

This is a personal crusade for Jacob. She says she’s seen the harm “biased single faith instruction” can cause.

“Despite having opted our seven-year-old son out of his school’s religious instruction class, he was either sent to the new entrants’ class or kept at the back of the classroom, where he was still exposed to the class. When he was excluded from the class, the teasing and bullying started, with our son being harassed two or three times every week. ‘Why don’t you believe in God?’, ‘You’re going to hell’, and that sort of thing.”

She says her daughter began experiencing the same treatment and their school did not respond to their concerns.

“My husband and I asked our kids how they would feel about changing schools. They were ecstatic to be removed from that hostile environment, but I was shocked at the extremes we had to go to under a supposedly secular – non-religious – school system.”

It was then that Jacob began looking into the campaign for truly secular education in New Zealand. “Children everywhere were being ostracised and parents were struggling to deal diplomatically with their schools.”

She joined the Secular Education Network in 2012 and has been working toward the removal of religious education from secular schools ever since. The court case came next.

“I realised how essential it is that we don’t allow the Church to take up our children’s valuable class time and school resources to preach their own agenda. I did an official information request and received years and years of records about religious instruction complaints to the Ministry of Education. It confirmed that the ministry wasn’t helping parents and nothing looked set to change. The only thing that seemed like it could stand a chance of making a difference was a legal challenge.”

She is emphatic: “Biased single faith religious instruction needs to go. All state schools need to be free of it. It’s well past time.”

Jacob insists she and the Secular Education Network aren’t anti-Christian, but rather “pro-education”. She says the cause is about religious discrimination too.

“Our education legislation needs to stand up for the rights of children and their parents to have their own religious and non-religious beliefs. What happens to the Hindu, or Islam, or Sikh, or Buddhist, or non-religious family who doesn’t want to rock the boat? We often hear the cry ‘but New Zealand is a Christian country’. Actually, it’s not. In the 2018 census, 48.5% of us had no religion at all, and only 37% identified as Christian.”

Approached for a response to the petition, a spokesperson for education minister Chris Hipkins told The Spinoff the following: “We are on track to change the law so that parents have to give explicit written consent for their child to be given religious instruction in state schools. The changes are expected to pass in the coming weeks. Religious instruction was traversed at Select Committee this year. The Committee heard submissions from various groups including the Secular Education Network, and no further changes were recommended by the Committee.”

Jacob says the response isn’t good enough. “The change to opt-in is an improvement, but it does not answer the fundamental question of whether religious bodies should be given free access to young school children in school time.”

Labour’s lead on the Education Select Committee, Jan Tinetti, said the removal of religious instruction from the Education and Training Bill was beyond the committee’s scope.

“We have made amendments to ensure that parents have to opt in for this instruction rather than what it is now to opt out of. At this point I fully support school communities to have religious instruction delivered if that is the desire of their local community – that is the beauty of our system – school communities can deliver what they deem to be important to them.

“Having said that more and more schools are opting out of offering religious instruction every year as our communities change. I can see that in the near future there will be a discussion that will possibly see the removal of religious instruction – these changes are an important step along that pathway if that is indeed the direction our country is moving in. As an aside I have been principal of two schools where the community decided it wasn’t in the best interest for our communities to continue with offering religious instruction. I appreciated that the decision was ours and with it being a majority decision, we never received any push back.”

Such a hands-off approach is frustrating to Jacob and her fellow secular parents. “They have failed to listen to much of the feedback they received from the public about the discriminatory practice of allowing religious instruction in schools. The report sanctions bible classes for primary school children in state primary schools, even though the new bill, like previous laws, states that schools must be secular.

“Schools should be a place where children are safe from targeting by religious groups trying to spread their faith. We have churches for this, and families are welcome to take their children there on Sundays or any other time – outside of school hours.”

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