Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Good grief!! Here we go...

News in the Herald's column this afternoon saying that the Education Ministry has released "guidelines" on religious activities in schools.

To be fair, this is not something that is new.

Since 1877, participation in "religious studies" in schools has been "voluntary".

What that has meant (when I was at school) was you were not allowed to leave the room when les religieux took over for their hour per fortnight or whatever. It did not take long for those so inclined to realise it was a good opportunity for other non-disruptive activities such as doing one's homework, or finishing that essay that was needed the following period or just reading a good book.

But it looks like a long few weeks ahead as the lambs of god bleat their way through the iniquities of not being allowed to impose their religious beliefs on the (suspected) ungodly children in "their" schools.


By far the greatest reaction thus far has come from the Headmasters Association (what do you call a group of headmasters? A "superiority"? Suggestions welcomed), not as I expected from the god-botherers.

The "principal" (yep, pune intended) objection thus far is the law itself.

"How", the principal Principal asks, "does one distinguish between a religious prayer and a spiritual prayer? What does a school do when a child is killed in a road accident? Just carry on as if nothing has happened? Send round a note for parents to give permission for their kids to attend a memorial service including prayers?"

Another "killer" -

"Read our National Anthem. It includes an entreaty to 'God'. Does that make it a prayer? Are schools banned from teaching the National Anthem?"

The Ministry "has had numerous persistent objections from parents"... that turns out to be about one a week. O - K!

The Herald provides this summary of the concerns that schools have...

* Confusion about whether it's legally acceptable to provide access to voluntary groups to run lunchtime Bible clubs in schools.

* Religion creeping into secular life of schools through use of religious readings or hymns in assemblies.

* Teachers and principals leading observances, thereby creating the impression that student participation is not voluntary.

* Embarrassment and inappropriate alternative arrangements for students who opt out.

* Proselytising activities by school chaplains.

* Secondary schools are not bound by the secular requirements of the Education Act, but must comply with the anti-discrimination requirements of the Bill of Rights Act which does restrict use of religious practices


Also raised as part of the concern over religion in schools is the fact that NZ society is a whole heap more diverse than it was in 1964 when the current law was created I mean to say, it is no longer just a matter of the "believers", the "non-believers" and the "heathen". We now have Muslims, and Jews, and even (gasp!!) Baha'i and Bhuddists!!

So, apart from the fact that the ol' probligo thinks that too many people get more than a little precious about their interaction, or in this case their children's interaction, with wider society there is a case here and it is one in which I must be consistent.

The first point is a fundamental.
State schooling in NZ is totally secular

That is simple enough isn't it? Apparently for some it is not.

The second is the law.
That is the source of the fundamental. It does not prevent the private school based upon practice of a particular religion, nor the observance of religion in such a school. Hence we have schools that are attached to a synogogue, to a mosque, to an evangelical Christian college, there are private schools operated in the auspices of a Church movement, and I know of at least one instance where a state school was effectively hi-jacked by its local community and turned to a curriculum based solely upon their religious beliefs. (For those wondering about that last; it was the school at Oruaiti, in a strict Closed Brethren community).

The fundamental and the law apply only to those schools operated by the State.

That the "law" applies only to primary and intermediate schools is, of course, a fairly large red herring.

The fact that the Human Rights Act (our Bill of Rights) makes the proselytising of any religion through the State an illegal act is a parallel, not a contrary.

Complicating that "reasonably simple" picture is the advent of Kura Kaupapa. I have to be a little careful here as the Kura Kaupapa is one thing that I know little of; a quick research and impressions from the past ten or so years is all that I am going on. Kura (School - Maori-ised English) Kaupapa (I have in mind "tradition", but incorporating "explanation", "learning" and "meaning") are total immersion Maori language schools. A very large part of their teaching, their method and their curriculum is based upon Maori tradition including ceremony and spirituality.

And in that one word is another bridge between simplicity and complication.

But the consistency that I must satisfy is that of secularity. I have preached the importance of State secularity to such an extent that I would not be true to myself if I do not take this situation back to my own beliefs.

I want to preface this by stating, quite openly, that I have no "bother", no "problem", with religion. I am happy for other people to believe what they want, to have faith in whatever gives them hope and raison d'etre. Others prefer to view their world in terms of absolutes - of "same" and "not same", of "acceptable" and "not acceptable".

It becomes MY problem when they try impose those beliefs (whether by open proselytising or just simple expectation) on me.

I want to be clear here. I argue secularity in a way that is both partial (in that I take a side) and open (in that I allow others to have their part).

If a school (let us say the school where my children are attending) decides that the day will start with a hymn and a prayer in school assembly I am not going to be upset by it. I will tell my kids to behave with courtesy and respect.

When it gets to the point that their schooling is affected because they are not being taught in the same manner as any other student (because of their beliefs or lack thereof) then that does get my attention.

I say at this point that if my son or daughter were to tell me that they had taken up formal Christianity, or Islam, or Judaism, I might ask how much they had thought of the commitment they were making but I would make no move to dissuade them. (I mean they are both 30 now, but at the age of 12). I would draw the line at some of the more esoteric cults - there some parental guidance would be both justified and required. As it happens my daughter delights in telling of her experience (at the age of 14) in Queen St with a "very strange lot" who got her to do this test and then tried telling her that she was suicidal and a potential drug addict. My son tells of attending a Funeral Mass for the father of a good friend of his and finding the experience "interesting and very moving".

It comes to a matter of belief. That too is a fundamental.

If your belief is strong, it should not matter. If your belief is weak, can be influenced by others, then whose problem should that be?

I spent four years attending a State school where the Headmaster was a devout Anglican. He permitted (this was pre 1964) the local Lay preachers to conduct a monthly one hour period of "general religious instruction".

I spent the following three years attending a State school where the Headmaster was a very strong atheist. Was it illegal for him "to impose his beliefs upon the school by insisting that no religious teaching should be allowed"?

Is an atheist going to refuse to sing the National Anthem because it has reference to God in it? I personally use the excuse that I can not sing, but I am happy to recite both English and Maori versions.

That does not make me any more of a Christian than it does make me a monkey.

It is actually very simple -

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