Court ruling on religion in schools a sad day for Christianity: Priest
Eastern Cape schools and a church reacted with mixed feelings yesterday to a Gauteng High Court ruling that schools are not allowed to favour one religion over another.
The court made its order yesterday after a non-governmental organisation, Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie (Ogod), made an application against six public schools which are predominantly Christian.
The NGO had argued that pupils should not be forced to attend morning assembly if they were not Christians.
While at least three Christian schools in East London welcomed the decision, saying they did not discriminate against other religions, a church minister described the order as a “sad day for Christianity”.
Reformed Presbyterian Community Church Reverend Xolamzi Sam said he hoped the ruling would be challenged.
“It is sad when an institution prefers a certain religion and cannot apply it,” said Sam.
Leaders of other religions could not be reached at the time of writing.
Parkside Primary School principal Brian Fritz said the school practised Christianity 99% of the time but with the court ruling, they welcomed input from parents and the governing body.
“We pray in the morning and read a scripture from the Bible but with that said, we are not against any other religion, it’s just how it has always been done.”
Abbotsford Christian School principal Margretha Esprey said they were a Christian School and stood for Christianity.
“When parents enrol their children with us they are made aware of our Christian practices at the school and they sign an agreement.
“However, we do not turn away children from other religions or non-religious children,” she said.
Ogod wanted an order restraining the schools from partaking in an identified set of 71 instances of circumscribed conduct with a religious theme‚ some of which are identified with the Christian faith.
These range from “holding itself as a Christian school” and “having a value that includes learners to strive towards faith”.
However‚ the full bench – comprising judges Colin Lamont‚ Willem van der Linde and Namhla Siwendu – refused to grant an interdict to Ogod based on the 71 instances of circumscribed conduct at schools.
The court held that these were matters for regulation at the school governing body (SGB) level.
It said that the principle of subsidiarity required that a constitutional attack must be made on the regulations by SGBs‚ and not directly on the Constitution itself.
“Accordingly‚ by the principle of subsidiarity‚ in this matter an applicant who contends that religious conduct at a public school is unconstitutional…must either find its case on a contravention of an applicable SGB rule or…it must attack the relevant SGB rules as being unconstitutional.”
The judges said this finding was not just a technical point.
“Consider the myriad detailed instances of conduct that the applicant attacks…and consider concomitantly the myriad detail arrangements covered by the schools’ religious policies.”
The court said it was not capable of fishing through those policies to find out whether any of the conduct complained of was actually covered by those policies.
“The question may be put this way: May a public school‚ through rules laid down by its SGB relative to say its heraldry‚ hold out that it is exclusively a Jewish‚ or a Christian‚ or a Muslim‚ or a Buddhist‚ or an atheist school?”
The court said the answer to this question was ‘no’.
Hudson Park Primary principal Ian Lehy said although he and many staff members and families were Christian, he was headmaster of all the school children and not just the Christians.
“We reiterate that, wherever people go to practise their faith, everyone can still strive for the key virtues of respect, honesty, kindness, diligence, self-discipline and service.” — firstname.lastname@example.org