I wince whenever I read our Constitution "guarantees" us freedom of religion. It may be true in theory, but in practice like children the powers that be in our young democracy constantly test our boundaries. If it were not the case, there would be no need for us to approach chapter nine institutions such as the South African Human Rights Commission and the CRL Rights Commission, noble community organisations such as Equal Education, Equality Courts, and as a last resort the Constitutional Court.
Religion is allowed in our schools whether we like it or not, but our schools are supposed to accommodate religious diversity (that means all religions). Despite The National Policy on Religion and Education adopted in 2003 and the Department of Basic Education's National Guidelines on School Uniform adopted in 2006, which claim to accommodate religious and cultural diversity, we are still being tested by our schools and education authorities.
Schools regularly turn away Rastafarian children with dreadlocks (Pupil, school face off over dreadlocks) and earlier this year a Western Cape school turned away two siblings wearing Muslim headgear (Fez, scarf siblings back at school). In 2007 the Constitutional Court found Durban Girls' High School had unfairly discriminated against a Hindu schoolgirl by not allowing her to wear a nose stud (MEC for Education: KwaZulu-Natal and Others v Pillay (2007)). I haven't read about anyone being turned away for wearing a crucifix.
While past tests appear to have been focussed on dress codes, in my opinion we are now facing a much more serious test (Satanism in schools: The acid test).
In March this year, Gauteng MEC for Education Barbara Creecy released an official statement about an "anti-Satanism strategy" developed by a primarily Christian "team of faith-based organisation (FBO) practitioners" to address "harmful religious practices" related to "the occult and Satanism" (MEC Creecy says GDE anti-Satanism strategy will address harmful religious practices). Creecy said a handbook had been compiled to "help educators and parents deal with Satanism ... The book has information on what signs to look out for, and where and how to get help if you suspect that a child is involved in the occult" (Education Department piloting handbook on dealing with Satanism). That sounds a lot like the prejudicial SAPS list of occult-related warning signs that has been removed from its website, not to mention the medieval Malleus Maleficarum.
Unfortunately for the Education Department, Pagans and atheists were not impressed by this. According to an article in Sunday Times Extra on 31 March 2013, "Spokesman for the HRC Isaac Mangena said the commission has received several complaints regarding Creecy's alleged utterances" (Satanism is not evil, says activist by Doreen Premdev). Last week the Gauteng Education Department said there would be no handbook (No guide on ‘harmful practices’), presumably as a result of these complaints, but they nevertheless appear to be pressing on with their strategy behind the scenes. It appears advocacy for religious freedom has only made them less transparent about it. The Citizen has further reported spokesperson for the MEC Charles Phahlane said "the department was not singling out specific religions but referring to any religion that condoned practices that might endanger the lives of others" (Education dept is guilty of hate speech - pagans), however the "anti-Satanism" headline still on the department's website and the lack of consultation with minority religious groups flatly contradicts this.
At this stage the debate is not about Religion Education but about unfair discrimination towards and stigmatization of learners who belong to minority religious groups and/or display behaviour the authorities, with a fundamentalist Christian bias, deem "harmful". The authorities are trying to scapegoat minority religions for behavioural problems instead of addressing it in a secular way (with psychologists etc). Apart from being unconstitutional, this in itself is potentially harmful for the learners and their families. So-called "Satanic" incidents being reported on in the media are typically related to accusations of Satanism or what is known as "legend tripping", whereby people dabble in what they think Satanism is based on scaremongering by Christian fundamentalists. Some learners have already been traumatized and isolated because of accusations of Satanism. (If you are not worried yet, please read the story linked especially what the Christian pastor called to the school had to say.)
This is nothing more than a modern witch hunt.