Religion at school ruling welcomed
Religion education rather than religious instruction
THE Department of Basic Education welcomed a ruling by the High Court in Johannesburg yesterday that government schools could not promote one religion to the exclusion of others.
Last month an application by the Organisation for Religious Education and Democracy was brought to the high court. The organisation brought the application against six schools – Laerskool Randhart, Laerskool Baanbreker, Laerskool Garsfontein, Hoërskool Linden, Hoërskool Oudtshoorn and Oudtshoorn Gimnasium – arguing religious practices at these schools resulted in the suppression of scientific teachings of evolution, and a religious ethos that was a form of coercion and an abuse of learners’ rights.
“It is declared that it offends for a public school to promote or allow its staff to promote that it, as a public school, adheres to only one, or predominantly only one religion, to the exclusion of others; and to hold out that it promotes the interest of any one religion in favour of others,” Judge Willem van der Linde said in handing down his ruling.
Judge Van der Linde said that the constitution supported both parties in the case, as everyone had the right to religion which they could practise in public and that attendance was free and voluntary.
The organisation said constitutional rights which would be infringed included the right to equality, belief, as well as the freedom of religion.
Judge Van der Linde said that the court remained concerned by the issue of a public school endorsing one religion.
“The need to celebrate diversity has been emphasised in the judgment.”
“…Neither school nor school governing body can say they subscribe to a specific religion,” Judge Van der Linde said.
Department spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga said in a statement that the ruling was consistent with the department’s own policy informed by the South African Schools Act and the constitution that no one religion be promoted over another.
“The (department) did not oppose the relief sought by the applicants, however monitored the case very closely as it was always going to have an impact at all public schools,” he said.
“The case was brought by (the organisation) against six schools and was opposed by Solidarity who represented the schools in question.”
Mhlanga quoted Judge Van der Linde’s ruling which said that religious observances could be conducted at state or state-aided institutions.
“The aim is not to ban religious practices in schools but about protecting children and emphasising that schools should engage in religion education rather than religious instruction and not promote one religion over another.”
The department said no change would take place as a result of this judgment and it would continue to be business as usual as the court merely reinforced and emphasised their existing policy in terms of religion in schools.
“The department will, however, study the judgment in detail. We remind school governing bodies however, to review their rules to ensure that they are in compliance with legislation.”