Daniel Meech interviews with David Hines of the Secular Education Network (SEN)
Should state schools be free from religious instruction? That’s the question the high court will be considering later this month, when they begin to hear submissions from Anya Jacobs and David Hines, two members of the Secular Education Network (SEN).
The SEN is a policy lobbying group which has been working for the past three years to limit religious instruction in state schools. They’ve spent time protesting outside of school grounds, holding community meetings, and negotiating with various school boards. But now the group is ready to go one step further: they’re taking the issue to court.
Note that Religious instruction is not the same as religious education. Religious education is a course offered and endorsed by the Ministry of Education, which compares and contrasts various religions to help children understand how they interact with society. Religious instruction involves members of a single belief preaching the particular message of their faith, usually with a view to influence listeners. Proponents of religious instruction in schools say the sermons offer valuable advice on ethics and morals. Opponents, like the SEN’s David Hines, say the instructions are “just evangelism hiding under a thin veneer of morals”.
The evangelical element of religious instruction is an important one – it goes straight to the heart of why the SEN want religious instruction banned. New Zealand is nominally a secular state. The Education Act of 1877 established free, compulsory and secular education for all new zealand children. You would expect state-run schools wouldn’t be allowed to impose religious beliefs on their students. And, technically, you would be right. State-run schools in New Zealand are banned from endorsing a single religion.
But a loophole in the law exists in sections 78 and 79 of the Education Act 1964 which allows state schools to voluntarily shut down for up to 60 minutes a week. During the shutdown, the school is technically not operating in its capacity as a state-run institution, meaning they are no longer barred from preaching one particular religion. More than 600 primary schools across the country use this loophole to bring Christian instructors onto school grounds — a practice the Secular Education Network would like to put an end to.
In the schools where it’s enforced, Religious Instruction is an ‘opt-out’ system, meaning children are automatically enrolled unless their parents expressly ask the school to remove them from the class. On the surface, that may seem fair – but in reality, the Ministry of Education has found that some schools don’t inform parents religious instruction takes place. David Hines argues that this means parents aren’t given a real opportunity to remove their children from the supposedly voluntary programmes. Hines further suggests that the separation of students according to their religious beliefs constitutes a form of discrimination. “It forces people to pick sides,” he says, and often ends up dividing school communities.
One of the largest proponents of religious instruction in schools is the Churches Education Commission. The commission is a collective of priests and preachers from various localities, whose website says they believe teaching school children about the Christian faith instils in them a sense of morals and ethics. David Hines remains unconvinced. “We don’t object to ethics,” he says, “but they tend to be ethics with a Christian rubber stamp all over it … [which brings with it] the insinuation that other religions have no ethics. It’s an insinuation that annoys people of all religions.” Craccum asked the CEC for comment, but got no response.
David Hines says he expects to begin submissions on Monday the 24th. He says his argument is a simple one: the sections of the Education Act 1964 which allow for schools to close down for religious instruction are in breach of the Human Rights Act 1993, as they enable discrimination on religious grounds. It is unclear what will happen if he does succeed. Historically, the courts in New Zealand have been unable to strike down legislation on the grounds of constitutional inconsistency. However, the court may be able to declare the legislation unlawful, and defer the matter to Parliament. Parliament would then have to decide on whether to repeal the sections of the Education Act. In the meantime, Hines says he is hopeful a formal declaration from the court will provoke ministers and public servants to hold school boards to account for allowing religious instruction to take place in state-run institutions.