Mixed reaction to court’s ruling against single-religion schools
There has been mixed reaction following a judgment on Wednesday that no public school may promote that it subscribes to only a single particular religion to the exclusion of others.
The Organisasie vir Godsdinte-Onderrig en Demokrasie (Organisation for Religious Education and Democracy)‚ which brought the application before the high court in Johannesburg‚ welcomed the judgment.
Its chairman‚ Hans Pietersen‚ said the judgment meant a public school may not promote a specific religion and exclude others.
“Our case was built on the fact that they were called Christian schools and coerced learners to participate‚” Pietersen said.
The application by the organisation was to seek to restrain six schools‚ two in the Western Cape and two in Gauteng‚ from partaking in a set of 71 instances of conduct with a religious theme‚ some of which were identified with the Christian faith.
The schools are Laerskool Randhart‚ Laerskool Baanbreker‚ Laerskool Garsfontein‚ Hoërskool Linden‚ Hoërskool Oudtshoorn and Oudtshoorn Gimnasium.
Some of these challenged instances of conduct included having religious instruction and singing‚ handing out Bibles‚ opening the day with Scripture and explicit prayer dedicated to a particular God and having children draw pictures depicting Bible stories.
The organisation wanted this interdict to apply to all public schools.
The full bench of the high court dismissed the application. It said the organisation should have the school governing bodies’ rules challenged as being unconstitutional.
However‚ the court declared that it offended section 7 of the Schools Act for a public school to promote that it‚ as a public school‚ adheres to only one or predominantly only one religion to the exclusion of others.
The Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas)‚ which represents the governing bodies of the six schools‚ was unhappy about the judgment.
“As I understood it‚ the court ruled that a school cannot have a particular religious ethos‚ to the exclusion of other religions. The implication of the judgment‚ it seems‚ is that schools are deprived of the freedom to decide for themselves what the ethos of their school is. We believe that cannot be correct‚” Fedsas CEO Paul Colditz said.
Colditz‚ however‚ said the issue of religious observance at the schools would not be affected by the judgment.
“The court said if the schools have (religious) observances‚ they should be conducted in accordance with the rules set by the school governing bodies.”
Colditz said this meant if a school had a majority Muslim school‚ but there were also Christian children‚ the Christian children must have an option to attend or not to attend the Muslim observances and there must be a provision for Christian children to observe their religion.
Pietersen said the problem with the public schools which described themselves as adhering to a particular religion started in 2008 at a primary school in Stellenbosch where one of his children was asked to pray in class.
“I went to the school to complain and they told me to f… off. I went to the provincial department of education which could not assist either‚” Pietersen said.
Pietersen said in 2014‚ he found a law firm that was willing to handle his case without charge.
Pietersen said he also received help from parents of the six schools which were cited in the case and which encountered the same problem of coercion that he did.
“My kids have left the school. In the high school where they are now‚ there has been no reason to complain.”
AfriForum‚ a civil rights organisation which was admitted as friend of the court in this case‚ said parents need to make use of existing channels to prevent discrimination against their children on the grounds of religion.
“At the same time‚ AfriForum is still of the opinion that a community must be able to decide regarding the religious ethos of a school‚” AfriForum’s project coordinator for education Carien Bloem said.
She said governing bodies of public schools were elected democratically.
“If they decide on a certain religious ethos for a school‚ it must be executable without excluding other learners. As thousands of parents confirmed to AfriForum‚ this is also currently the case at public schools.”