Ruling on religion welcomed

2017-06-29 13:45
Local backing as high court rules schools must be neutral.

Local backing as high court rules schools must be neutral. (File)

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Local organisations and religious groups have welcomed a high court decision on religion in public schools, agreeing that schools cannot promote one religion.

The case was brought by the Organisation for Religious Education and Democracy (OGOD) against six schools in the Johannesburg high court where judgement was handed down yesterday.

Local teachers, and the Department of Education, said this was always understood at public schools but they welcomed the endorsement from the high court.

Mohamed Saeed, a teacher at the Nizamia Islamic School, said that public schools needed to be “neutral” as children are vulnerable and impressionable.

“Promoting one religion in a public school amounts to religious indoctrination and should clearly be outlawed in public schools,” Saeed said.

He said that pupils should not be encouraged to accept or conform to specific religious beliefs or practices at state or state-aided schools.

He also called on teachers to be “extremely” sensitive to pupils’ diverse religious beliefs.

“Schools may teach international human values like honesty, rule of law, accountability, tolerance, human rights, deepening democracy, good citizenship, sportsmanship, courage, and respect for the rights and freedoms of others, respect for persons and their property, tolerance and hard work,” he said.

A local school governing body chairperson also welcomed the judgment, saying that if parents wanted their children to be taught religious studies, “they should be enrolled in private schools promoting their religious beliefs”.

“There are many schools in the province that promote religious studies of a particular religion and parents can choose to send their children to that school.

“It is a democratic country and everyone has their rights but in public schools it is best that everyone remain neutral,” said the chairperson.

OGOD wanted the court to declare unconstitutional the religion policy of six schools: Randhart Primary School in Alberton, Baanbreker Primary School in Boksburg, Garsfontein Primary School in Pretoria, Linden High School in Johannesburg, Oudtshoorn High School and Langenhoven Gymnasium in Oudts­hoorn, Netwerk24 reported.

The six schools, the ministers of Basic Education and of Justice, and the National Society for School Governing Bodies were respondents.

The court found that it was against the Schools Act to “promote one faith or one religion primarily at the expense of others or allow school staff to do it”, Netwerk24 reported.

Advocate Hendrik van Nieuwenhuizen, for OGOD, said it was in the interests of South African democracy that public schools are not allowed to promote a particular religion, but that the choice of religion lies with pupils.

However, the schools’ legal representative, Advocate Adrian d’Oliveira, said every school community was unique and should therefore be allowed to choose a religious policy that served the community.

They wanted the court to recognise the “governing authority” of the school governing bodies.

Kwazi Mthethwa, spokesperson for the province’s MEC for Education Mthandeni Dlungwane, echoed the sentiments of local organisations.

Mthethwa said that in a democratic country, such as South Africa, people had the right to associate with any religion “as long as their views did not jeopardise the next person’s religion or right”.

“This judgment is already in line with our Constitution but we do welcome the endorsement by the high court,” Mthethwa said.

A portion of the judgement handed down by Judge Willem van der Linde at the Johannesburg High Court:

“Religious observances may be conducted at state or state-aided institutions, provided that:

(a) Those observances follow rules made by the appropriate public authorities;

(b) They are conducted on an equitable basis; and

(c) Attendance at them is free and voluntary,” Judge Willem van der Linde said while handing down the judgment, quoting from Section 15 of the Constitution which deals with freedom of religion, belief and opinion.

“…we have however also found at the level of principle that neither a school governing body nor a public school may lawfully hold out that it subscribes to only a single particular religion to the exclusion of others,” said Van der Linde.

“In the circumstances, we issue the following order:

(a). It is declared that it offends Section 7 of the Schools Act, 84 of 1996 for a public school –

(i). To promote or allow its staff to promote that it as a public school adheres to only one, or predominantly only one, religion to the exclusion of others; and

(ii). To hold out that it promotes the interests of any one religion in favour of others.”

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  discrimination

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