Ye of little faith: Court rules against single-religion schools

29 June 2017 - 06:00
By Ernest Mabuza
Image: Gallo Images/ IStock

Public schools may no longer promote themselves as subscribing to a particular religion, the High Court in Johannesburg ruled yesterday.

"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," said Paul Colditz, CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas).

The ruling came after the Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie (Organisation for Religious Education and Democracy, Ogod) brought an application to restrain six schools from partaking in 71 instances of conduct with a religious theme, some identified with Christianity.

Though the court did not go as far as granting an interdict to stop the schools from participating in the 71 "religious observances", it did find that no state school should be allowed to promote only one religion to the exclusion of others.

"The overarching constitutional theme is that our society is diverse, that diversity is to be celebrated and that specific rights are conferred and dealt with in pursuance of that principle. Within this context, public schools are public assets which serve the interests of society as a whole," reads the judgment.

Some of the 71 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 full bench, comprising judges Colin Lamont, Willem van der Linde and Namhla Siwendu, held that these were matters for regulation at school governing body level.

Ogod chairman Hans Pietersen welcomed the judgment.

"Our case was built on the fact that they were called Christian schools and coerced learners to participate," Pietersen said.

The schools mentioned in the application are Laerskool Randhart, Laerskool Baanbreker, Laerskool Garsfontein, Hoerskool Linden, Hoerskool Oudtshoorn and Oudtshoorn Gimnasium.

Fedsas's Colditz said 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."

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 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 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 needed to use 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 co-ordinator for education Carien Bloem said.