Does God belong in schools?

2014-09-05 14:41

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Cape Town - Religious groups are outraged that six public schools are facing court action for advertising themselves as exclusively “Christian”. But is it a “witch hunt” or is it fair?

The court challenge hails from the NGO Organisasie vir Godsdienste Onderrig en Demokrasie (Organisation for Religious Education and Democracy) (OGOD), which claims it is acting on complaints from parents at the schools.

OGOD’s chairperson, Hans Pietersen told News24 that he is taking two ministers and six schools to task for using taxpayers’ money to suppress the scientific teaching of evolution, and for religious coercion and abuse of learners’ rights.

But Anton Alberts, the parliamentary spokesperson for the Freedom First Plus - which promotes Christian values - called the move “a witch hunt on Christendom”.

He claimed the court action is “in conflict with the very essence of democracy in the country”.

What are the rules around religion in schools?

Under the Constitution, citizens have the right to establish independent schools, including religious schools, “at their own expense”.

But for public schools, the National Policy on Religion dictates that the state must not pay for the promotion of any particular faith.

South Africa does not have a state religion, and as such “the state cannot allow unfair access to the use (of) its resources to propagate any particular religion”.

It also rules that public schools “may not violate the religious freedom of pupils and teachers by imposing religious uniformity on a religiously diverse school population”.

Does OGOD have a valid point?

Alberts claimed that OGOD’s court action is “in conflict” with our democracy, yet the National Policy states that as a democratic society “we are duty bound” to ensure that our diversity is celebrated.

OGOD’s Pieterson told News24: “I am 99% behind the National Policy on Religion and 100% behind the Constitution”.

He said that he had nothing against independent religious schools, but takes issue with public schools that are using government funds to actively promote evangelical or authoritarian Christianity.

He added: “We are not fighting against religion - it’s not that we want religion out”.

The National Policy states that South Africa’s diversity should be “particularly evident in our public schools where no particular religious ethos should be dominant over and suppress others”.

It continues: “Just as we must ensure and protect the equal rights of all students to be at school, we must also appreciate their right to have their religious views recognised and respected.”

What is South Africa’s religious breakdown?

Some 72% of South Africans follow some form of Christianity. Of that group, 36% describe themselves as Christian, 11.1% as Zionist, 82% as Pentecostal/Charismatic, 6.8% as Methodist, 6.7% as Dutch Reformed and 3.8% as Anglican.

Christians dominate, but 1.5% of South Africans are Muslim, 1.2% are Hindu and 0.2% are Jewish. The remainder, according to StatsSA census data, said they had no religion, or didn’t specify.

How do our schools reflect the different religions?

In South Africa in 2012, there were 30 231 established public and registered independent education institutions, according to official figures.

Of these, 93.2% are public schools - which means under the Constitution and National Policy that they should not subscribe to a particular faith.

This is the law, despite the fact that the majority of South Africans are Christian.

Almost 4% of South Africa’s schools are independent and they are free to choose which religion they follow. That’s more than 1 000 schools - yet religious schools make up a tiny number of these.

Here’s the breakdown:

- 346 Catholic schools - 95 are independent but 250 are public schools on private property, according to the Catholic Institute of Education.

- 92 private Christian schools, according to the Association of Christian Schools.

- 68 private Muslim schools, according to the Association of Muslim Schools, South Africa.

- 20 private Jewish schools, according to estimates by the South African Board of Jewish Education, which pointed out there are likely to be a further number of Jewish primary schools run by local schuls.

What do the six schools say?

The six schools are Hoërskool Linden in Johannesburg, Laerskool Randhart in Alberton, Laerskool Baanbreker in Boksburg, Laerskool Garsfontein in Pretoria and Hoërskool Oudtshoorn and Langenhoven Gimnasium both in Oudtshoorn.

OGOD took up the challenge after five sets of parents from those schools (one family had two children at two different schools) approached them after direct complaints to the schools failed.

Pieterson said: “People tried various ways (to complain), they wrote letters and suggested that public debates were held, but they were stonewalled.”

The schools have 20 days to respond to the charges, however some have spoken out already.

Langenhoven Gimnasium and Hoërskool Oudtshoorn, dismissed the charges in a response to a report in the Afrikaans daily Die Burger.

Christo van der Bergh, chairperson of the Langenhoven Gimnasium school governing body, said: “Our school is known for our moral and disciplinary values, but we obey the law. Yes, we pray before rugby matches, but if someone doesn’t want to pray, we will accept it.”

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Hoërskool Oudtshoorn governing body, Dr Jaco Jordaan, said the court action was “an attack on the ethos of every public school”, airing concerns that “all religion will be banned from schools. It is unreasonable.”

What sort of reaction has the case had?

Since launching the court case, Pieterson said he had been contacted by other concerned parents from across the country - with the exception of KwaZulu-Natal and the far north.

He would like to hold a public debate on the subject but claimed that the church is “too scared”.

Yet some prominent Christian groups have spoken out, with the African Christian Democratic Party mostly recently joining Freedom Front Plus in voicing its opposition to the case.

President Rev Kenneth Meshoe said that the party was appalled by calls for Christian values to be removed in schools.

"The ACDP will oppose attempts to stop Christian values from being taught in schools as our Constitution promotes the freedom of religion and not freedom from religion," Meshoe said in a statement.

Read more on:    ff plus  |  acdp  |  education  |  religion

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