Six schools in court to defend their right to follow Christian religion

14 November 2016 - 08:27 By KATHARINE CHILD
Gavel. File photo.
Gavel. File photo.
Image: Thinkstock

Can children pray to only one God at school?

Six former Model C schools - whose pupils recite Christian prayers in assembly, pray before sport matches and describe themselves as having a predominantly "Christian ethos" - will have to defend their right in court to follow a single religion.

The case, to be heard by the Johannesburg High Court, will have implications for any state school that promotes one religion - in dress code, prayers or readings - even if the religion reflects the belief system of the majority.

OGOD, the Organisasie Vir Godsdienste Onderrig en Demokrasie, says in its heads of arguments, filed last week, that the constitution and the National Policy on Religion and Education do not allow for a single religion to be dominant at a public institution.

The NGO says on its website it exists to "eradicate religious indoctrination through public schools, to identify and expose magical thinking and to promote a democratic, secular and human rights-based society".

The schools cited in the court case are Laerskool Randhart, Laerskool Baanbreker, Laerskool Garsfontein, Hoerskool Linden - all in Gauteng - and two Oudtshoorn schools, Hoerskool Oudtshoorn and Lagenhoven Gimnasium.

The schools, represented by the Federation of Governing Bodies for SA Schools, saidthe SA Schools Act states: "School governing bodies are required to determine the nature and content of and religious observances for teachers and pupils.It may also determine that a policy of no religious observances be followed."

In 2008 OGOD founder Hans Pietersen discovered that his children were being exposed to Christian thinking, prayers and songs at the school they attended.

In 2009 he pointed out that a focus on a single religion at school went against the constitutional rights of diversity and equality.

In 2014 Pietersen found pro bono lawyers and filed an affidavit to interdict the six schools from advertising themselves as Christian, singing only Christian school songs or having logos that refer to a creator or single deity or, as one school did, display Bible verses on a classroom wall. He took issue with voluntary Christian meetings at school break time, which could encourage pupils to proselytise. The schools argue that Section 15 of the constitution allows for expression of religion in the public sphere as long as it is voluntary.

They say no child was forced to pray at sports matches or attend religious assemblies and deny that pupils were bullied because they had other beliefs. The schools, which initially opposed the matter last year, are required to file more detailed papers by February. The schools said the religion policy should not have been drawn up by the education minister as she could not understand the local and religious nature of each school.

The education and justice ministers, cited as respondents in the case, said they would not oppose the matter and would abide by the court’s decision. The Education Department indicated in court papers that it would defend its religion policy as being in line with the constitution.

The department said religious expression was allowed at schools, but could not be exclusionary or reflect only the majority’s views. The department also supported religious meetings during school breaks, as long as attendance was voluntary.

Paul Colditz, CEO of Fedsas, which will file responding affidavits on behalf of the schools in February, said: “[In South Africa] we have a constitutionally entrenched freedom of religion that is not restricted to the private sphere, but which gives all citizens the right to … conduct religious observances in public spaces, such as in public schools, subject to the safeguards built into the constitution.”

The safeguards ensure that religious expression is voluntary. Colditz said: “We want to live in a South Africa where freedom and unity in diversity is celebrated and where people are allowed to be what they are.”

Cause for Justice, an NGO, admitted as a friend of the court, argued: “Each school is a separate legal entity governed on democratic principles and may determine its own character, identity or ethos. “There is nothing in our constitution, Schools Act or the National Policy on Religion and Education that precludes a school from having a religious character or any other ideological identity.”

It warned that if Pietersen were successful “our religious rights could be swept away.”