The following letter was written by a member of the Secular Education Network to the Minister of Education recommending repeal of section 78 of the education act that permits schools to run religious instruction.

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to the Ministry in regard to clause 78 of the Education Act (1964) that allows religious instruction to take place in state primary schools. Religious instruction(RI), however well intended, creates a discriminatory environment in the classroom and the school as a whole. Our children have first-hand experience of how divisive and prejudicial an influence RI has in school and I ask that the clause be repealed.

Bible in Schools or any similar programme is incompatible with aims to provide a non-discriminatory classroom environment. Once a week an adult, who looks very much like a teacher and is given the authority of a teacher is allowed to stand in front of the class and promote their religious beliefs. There is no disclaimer beforehand to tell the kids that this person is not a teacher and that what they say may very well not be true. They are simply allowed to proceed to encourage children to accept their opinions as fact.

The most recent Census figures indicate that a little over half of New Zealanders consider themselves Christian. As far as the children are concerned a little over half of them have their family’s beliefs endorsed and validated by the school, and the rest are discouraged from asserting themselves as different. Being told that you can opt out shines a light on differences in beliefs at an age where children are very black and white in their thinking, and feeling included is vitally important. Throw in lollies handed out to the children who attend RI and not infrequent “make-work” for those who do not attend and it quickly becomes clear to the children that some children are being preferentially treated because of their religious beliefs. Religious instruction seeps into other areas of school life, as children start bringing bibles to school and blogging on the school website about what they learned in RI that day. It is not benign, it is not simply cultural heritage and it is not just story telling.

Our children currently attend Harewood School in Christchurch, our oldest is in year 3. We were aware that the school had RI from the beginning and opted out. Though concerned that valuable curriculum time was being handed over for religious instruction we felt confident enough that opting out would not be problematic. However, since then there have been continual and increasing incidences of discrimination. In the early days there were times when our children were kept in the same classroom during RI, which we put a stop to. Then our son was put to washing dishes in the staffroom, which we also put a stop to. The last two years has seen more and more comments and bullying by other students for example asking my children why they don’t believe in god and saying that they will go to hell. There is teasing and ostracism which may seem mild to adults but is very hurtful and confusing for young children.

My husband and I have recently approached the school as we noticed behavioural changes and anxiety in our son. We had previously not wanted to make a fuss as we felt it would emphasise a difference between the children and make things worse. The school has responded reasonably and I must emphasise that my letter is not about condemning the schools conduct. My intention is to illustrate the impact of allowing religious groups access to our state schools and argue for legislation change that protects a religiously neutral school environment.

Handing over responsibility to school boards for the decision whether or not to have RI leaves children vulnerable to religious groups insinuating themselves into schools via the school boards and perpetuates the problem of entrenched discrimination. The selection process for board members is based on whoever puts themselves forward for the vote. Those individuals are not obliged to reveal their religious affiliations and nor should they be. I would not be assessing someone’s competency and enthusiasm for the role based on their personal beliefs. However, they are also extremely unlikely to be candid about any agenda to influence religious policy within the school. It is my understanding that the Christian Education Commission, for example, encourages church members to stand for their school boards.

Our state schooling must provide the best practicable ethical environment. The current curriculum already includes values that help guide the development of ethical decision making in children. If it is deemed by some people to be inadequate, then the likes of the Primary Ethics programme that operates in New South Wales could be considered. Clause 78 is no longer a satisfactory reflection of New Zealand values and needs to be repealed. I am aware that the Ministry attempted to repeal this legislation in 2006. Please do not give in to pressure from religious lobby groups. This is a topic that parents are wary to discuss openly but support for keeping religion out of schools is becoming more organised and the discussion is becoming more visible thanks to the efforts of the Secular Education Network. Certainly families are free to pursue religious observance of their choosing in this country. Now we just need to ensure that our children can go to state schools without being discriminated against because of religion.

Thank you for your consideration of this issue.