'Schools should not adopt one religion to the exclusion of others' - judge

Johannesburg – The High Court in Johannesburg has handed down a ruling on religion in public schools, saying that schools can’t promote one religion.

The case was brought by the Organisation for Religious Education and Democracy (OGOD) against six schools.

"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.

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 previously reported.

The six schools, the ministers of basic education and justice, and the National Society for School Governing Bodies were respondents.

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

"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."

The remainder of the relief claimed was refused and there was no order as to costs.

Advocate Hendrik van Nieuwenhuizen, for OGOD, said it is 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.

Advocate Adrian d'Oliveira, the school's legal representative, said every school community was unique and should therefore be allowed to choose a religious policy that serves the community. They wanted the court to recognise the "governing authority" of the school governing bodies.

Advocate Matthew Chaskalson, for the minister of basic education, said the national policy on religion and education prohibited public schools from offering religious education in a single faith or in favour of a particular religious ethos.

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