Cross-Examination: An Obsolete Status Quo – Does Religion Still Have A Place in New Zealand Schools?

Jess Fitzgerald, content contributor

The recent media attention concerning Jeff McClintock’s High Court action against the Attorney General and his daughter’s Hibiscus Coast school has reignited debate over a complex issue sensitive to many New Zealanders: the place (if any) that religion should command in our schools.

Religion has always been a fundamental aspect of New Zealand schools’ curriculum — dating back to when many of the first schools were run by various denominations of Christianity. Today, as per section 77 of the Education Act 1964, teaching in primary schools is supposed to be secular — though, as evident from the recent rise of incidents reported in the media, this issue is far from settled.[1]

There is often confusion between religious instruction (teaching a faith as truth) and religious education, which teaches a comparative, neutral view of multiple religions.[2] New Zealand does not have the latter programme.[3] The exact number of state primary schools that teach religious instruction is unknown, but it is estimated to be at least 40% of schools.[4]

The legal provisions governing today’s treatment of religion in schools are primarily found in the Education Act 1964. The Act was enacted at a time when around 90% of the population affiliated with Christianity, and this is reflected in the Act’s treatment of this issue.[5][6] However, this is not the case today, with a massive increase in those identifying with religions other than Christianity. The most recent Census (2013), when compared with its 2006 predecessor, displays three important trends. First, the number of New Zealanders identifying as Christians continues to decrease — 48.9% of respondents in the 2013 Census identified as Christian, compared to 60% in the 2001 Census.[7]  Meanwhile, those referring to themselves as “non-religious” are growing in number — from 29.6% in 2001 to 41.9% in 2013 census results. The next most common religious affiliations (Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) have jumped from 1% to 5% of the surveyed population in less than ten years.[8]

Whilst New Zealand has changed, the treatment of religion in our schools under the Education Act has not: Christian doctrines (largely taken from traditional European Christianity) continue to be the dominant, and in many cases, the only religion taught in primary schools.

Two pieces of legislation are relevant to this matter: the aforementioned Education Act 1964 and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990. Both contain provisions that, whilst acknowledging our nation’s secularity, do allow some leeway in terms of what (and how) religious education can be covered in schools. It is important to note that the law, as per s 78 of the Education Act, only applies to primary state schools.

In particular, sections 77 and 78 of the former Act provide that teaching must be secular during the hours a school is open for instruction — but it is permitted to close, for up to one hour a week (20 hours maximum a year), for religious instruction or observance, known as the “Nelson Clause”[9][10]. Section 79 enables parents to ‘opt out’ their children from such classes. Mr McClintock’s case aims to repeal section 78 altogether, so as to outlaw religious instruction in school time. As per the doctrine of separation, the High Court does not have the power to override this legislation.[11] However, should it make a formal declaration that section 78 is inconsistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, the courts could exercise significant political pressure for law reform, in order to try and influence Parliament to repeal this section .[12] Such law reform would likely be achieved by an MP (part of the ruling government or otherwise) bringing a bill concerning an amendment to Parliament, with the aim to repeal section 78. For such an amendment to become law, it must have sufficient support in the House of Representatives to progress past three readings, as well as various committees, before it can gain royal assent and become New Zealand law.[13]

The opt out clause mentioned above does not always achieve its purpose in practice, with several cases picked up by the media of parents who were not informed or asked by the schools before their children were put in such classes.  Mr. McClintock’s daughter, for example, was placed in Bible classes without her parents being notified or asked for permission: the volunteer teacher justified this by claiming the “classes were “history lessons” as the Bible was factually correct”.[14].Even if children are successfully opted out of the classes, the issue inevitably rises as to what they do in that time and the consequences of being separated from those classmates who do participate in religious instruction.

The media coverage of consequences of children being ‘opted out’ of religious classes range from being made to do dishes, to “being snuck back in”, or made to listen regardless of their parents’ wishes[15]. A more concerning outcome of this situation, however, is the noted number of children who feel segregated from their peers, simply because their family has different religious beliefs (including atheism) than that being taught in their schools[16]. More than ever before, this is increasingly the case as New Zealand continues to become more diverse in terms of religious affiliations – as well as more and more families identifying as non-religious.

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act contains four provisions relevant to a right to religious beliefs (sections 13,15, 19 and 20), but do not override a school’s Board of Trustees’ right to close for religious instruction.[17] Rather, these provisions are claimed to somewhat moderate how instruction is provided.

The relevant legal provisions give some base guide as to how religion should be treated in schools, but there are still many grey areas that have and will likely continue to result in uncertainty and incidents. Ultimately, the law leaves the treatment of religious instruction up to a school’s Board of Trustees to act as they see fit for their community.

Advocates for teaching religion in schools primarily point to the influential role religion has commanded in several other school subjects: English, the social sciences and drama have all been influenced by religious beliefs in some way. This perceived benefit can be supported by the New Zealand Curriculum’s emphasis on coherence: so that students are offered “a broad education that makes links within and across learning areas…and opens up pathways to further learning.”[18] The second substantive point advocated by supporters concerns the ‘values’ that religion is seen to teach children. Western society, for example, is still based on Christianity, and it is argued by some that if one lived like Christian figures such as Jesus and the Good Samaritan, society would be better off.[19] However, moral principles such as helping others, treating family well and the condemnation of greed and violence form the foundation of many religions — not just Christianity.

Those who oppose the status quo tend to fall into two categories: supporters of no religion in modern schools and those who are opponents to only Christianity being examined. Both groups are represented in the Secular Education Network, of which Mr. McClintock is a member. SEN’s stance on religious instruction in schools is more a critique of the current situation, rather than outright condemnation of any religious education. The group typically advocates for “all religion taught in schools, not just Christianity.”[20]

As time progresses, it has become more clear that the current methods are not fulfilling their objective as identified by the Human Rights Commission: that is, to be “forward thinking and inclusive” under the national curriculum (Morris & Human Rights Commission, 2009). Therefore, it stands that alternatives must be considered. Three have become prominent in the recent media coverage: abolishing any type of religious education at all; changing the current ‘opt out’ to ‘opt in’; or replacing Christianity-specific classes with a more general class covering a variety of religious beliefs.

An ideal solution is one that recognises the value of religious education in teaching our children morals and about the diversity of different religious beliefs. In order to enable children to think critically about the world around them, understanding is vital. With this in mind, the first option of cutting religion completely does not provide these benefits.

This also holds true for the alternative of changing to “opt in”; though it will assist those parents who do not wish for their children to participate in current classes, this does not fundamentally solve the issues with the current method. A resulting dilemma is what the children exempted from these classes do in these periods: should they lose valuable education time because their family’s beliefs (or lack of) do not align with the specific religious viewpoints their school subscribes to? For this to be a viable option, legitimate alternatives need to be first identified and put in place before an opt in system can truly be utilised.

It is, therefore, the third option that appears most appropriate for modern-day New Zealand. Informing primary school children about a variety of beliefs not only allows them to draw comparisons (there are many, even outside of the Abrahamic religions), but also is far likely to promote a sense of inclusiveness among those children who are from faiths other than Christianity. The value of such a general religious education class has been notably recognised by the United Kingdom since the 1970s, where an increase in ethnic and religious diversity prompted an evolution in how religion was examined in schools.[21] More recently, the Victoria state government moved towards phasing out volunteer-led Christian classes in favour of a “less preachy” general religion class.[22]  As to whether educating school children about religions should be restricted to high schools (which, as noted above are exempt from the current legislation anyway) — this is very much a personal choice. The argument over when children are old enough to learn about the world outside of their own is, no doubt, another debate in itself.

Though this is clearly an issue concerning the relationship between the state and religion, it may not be sufficient to dismiss religion entirely due to New Zealand’s secularity. Rather, as long as the state does not attempt to enforce instruction of a particular religion, it is permitted to teach about a variety. Dr. Zain Ali, head of the Islamic Studies research unit at the University of Auckland, summarised the ideal solution as “opening up religious education to reflect this diversity, include religion in the mainstream at all levels, and equip students with the tools that will allow them to make good choices about their own beliefs.”[23]  New Zealand’s current system of teaching one faith as truth, whilst failing to include those whose beliefs do not conform to Christianity is clearly the antithesis of this inclusive, useful solution Dr Ali extolls. The enemy of ignorance is education – and religious education is the ideal choice to not only ensure all New Zealand children feel included by their peers and schools, but also to introduce them to integral facets of cultures outside of their own.

[1] Education Act, 1964.

[2] P Morris and Human Rights Commission “Religion in New Zealand Schools – Questions and Concerns” (2009) Human Rights Commission <hrc.co.nz>.

[3] “Secular Education Network” Secular Education Network (NZ) <religioninschools.co.nz>.

[4] Laura Walters “Bible studies concerns heard by Human Rights Commission” Stuff (online ed, New Zealand, February 23 2015) <www.stuff.co.nz>.

[5] Mike Crudge “Pop quiz: When did regular church attendance peak in New Zealand?” (July 19 2013) Mike Crudge: Communication, Church, Society <mikecrudge.com>.

[6] John Stenhouse “Religion and society – Religious cooperation and nation-building, 1920–1970” (2012) Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand <www.TeAra.govt.nz>.

[7] “2013 Census QuickStats about culture and identity” (2014) Statistics New Zealand <www.stats.govt.nz>.

[8] Statistics New Zealand, above n 7.

[9] Education Act, 1964.

[10] “Our Story” (2012) Churches Education Commission <ww.cec.org.nz>.

[11] “The Judiciary” Ministry of Justice <www.justice.govt.nz>.

[12] “Part IV Remedies under the Bill of Rights Act” Ministry of Justice <www.justice.govt.nz>.

[13]“Parliament Brief: The legislative process” New Zealand Parliament <www.parliament.nz>.

[14] Laura Walters. Bible lessons lead to court. Sunday Star Times. (online ed, New Zealand, February 22 2015) <www.stuff.co.nz>.

[15] Jody O’Callaghan ‘Kitchen work for no-bible student.’ The Press (online ed, New Zealand, July 23 2014) <www.stuff.co.nz>.

[16] Luella Wheeler “Reader Report: School religious instruction ‘inappropriate’” Stuff  (online ed, New Zealand, March 18 2015) <www.stuff.co.nz>.

[17] New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, 1990.

[18] “Coherence” (2015) The New Zealand Curriculum Online <nzcurriculum.tki.org.nz>.

[19] Mike Bryan “Reader Report: Removing Christianity from schools ‘dangerous’” Stuff (online ed, New Zealand, May 26 2015) <www.stuff.co.nz>.

[20] Shane Cowlishaw and Laura Walters “Religious and devout protest together outside High Court” Stuff  (online ed, New Zealand, May 212015) <www.stuff.co.nz>.

[21] “Religions in New Zealand schools study reveals divisions” (March 2014) University of Otago Postgraduate Bulletin Board <www.otago.ac.nz>.

[22] Alana Schetzer “Plans to teach the big five religions in less “preachy” subject” The Age – Victoria (online ed, Victoria, May 26 2015) <www.theage.com.au>.

[23] Zain Ali Z “Dr Zain Ali: Don’t throw out baby with the holy water” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, New Zealand, March 13 2014) <www.nzherald.co.nz>.

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