Man hauls 6 schools to court over religious teachings in state school

Cape Town - A Stellenbosch man is taking six schools to court over how far the institutions can go with teaching religion at state schools.

''It has been nine years that I have been on this case,'' said small business owner Hans Pietersen on Friday, of a battle rooted in a ''Jesus Week'' activity at his triplets' school when they were still little.

''They wanted everybody to wear armbands for Jesus which immediately exposes everybody who is not part of those efforts,'' explained Pietersen.

He is bringing the application through his Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie (OGOD - the organisation for religious teaching and democracy) and says he is looking forward to it being heard in May.

His children are in high school now and find the controversy slightly amusing, but for Pietersen, there is a wider principle at stake.

''They have had some friends that won't travel in a car with them because [if] they died, they will go to hell [because of their father's views]," he said.

Not anti-religion

He told News24 that he was not anti-religion, and has studied courses on religion through the University of South Africa, but believes that it is not for state-funded schools to promote it or embrace it.

He is also adamant that although teachers have a right to believe in the Christian theory of creation, they cannot let this undermine teaching science-based theory on evolution at school.

He believes some schools are suppressing scientific and cultural knowledge and engaging in religious coercion as well as abusing pupils' Constitutional rights to freedom of belief, privacy, and equality in public schools.

Some of the school practices that he feels are inappropriate include:

  • Telling a pupil they will go to hell if they do not believe in God;
  • Keeping a record of a pupil's religion;
  • Promoting one religion over another;
  • Including religious references in the school song or motto.

Constitutional Court

The case is set down for three days in front of a full bench of the South Gauteng High Court between May 15 and 17, and will be led by a team of pro-bono lawyers.

The schools he cites in his papers are Linden high school in Johannesburg, Baanbreker primary school in Alberton, Garsfontein primary school outside Pretoria, Outdtshoorn primary school in the Western Cape and Langenhoven Gimnasium, also in Oudtshoorn.

He also cites the minister of basic education and the minister of justice and correctional services in his application.

WATCH:

Pietersen said he fully expects the case to eventually be heard on appeal in the Constitutional Court, but feels that the issue at stake is important enough for the long haul because some schools have deviated from the original plan regarding religion set out by the late Kader Asmal, a former minister of education.

It is not a problem in all schools, but in some schools it is worse, he explained.

''Most people say: 'Just take your kids to another school.' But those kinds of days are over now. There are teachers telling children: 'If you don't believe in God, you are going to hell.' That is not a teacher's place.

''This not about a specific religion. We cannot allow specific religions to get preferential treatment in public schools,'' said Pietersen, who regards the promotion of Christianity at school as a ''hangover'' from the Christian national education of the apartheid government.

''We don't want people to stop talking about religion. We should never keep knowledge away from children, and that includes knowledge about all religions,'' he said.

Free expression

Pupils need to experience and observe their classmates' religions because one day they will work with people from different religions, but they cannot do this if only one religion is promoted or taught.

Some of his critics have told him that evolution is just a theory, so there is nothing wrong with advocating creationism at a public school, but he feels it should be even handed.

''Then children must also know the creation of Buddhism, Hinduism; African religion.''

The journey to the court has not been easy for Pietersen.

''I have been called the anti-Christ, Satan. People wanted to boycott my business. If you stand up for equal rights, people will try to hound you.''

He believes that children should be able express themselves voluntarily over their beliefs and people who do not want to join, should not have to stand out and be obvious about it.

Pietersen explains that if a sports team wants to pray before a match, it should be done in a way that does not force somebody to exclude themselves.

The Federation of Governing Bodies of SA Schools (Fedsas) countered in court papers that the majority of children in SA attend public schools, and because the majority come from broken homes, they rely on ''religious coping as the only effective form of coping available to them''.

It submits that Pietersen is an atheist who mocks religion, and wants the majority to be denied the right to religion because of the ''religiously different or non-religious minority''.

Fedsas said School Governing Bodies make their own rules within the context of particular schools, and do not discriminate on the grounds of religion.

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