Three new schools have been hit by Bible in Schools protests in the past five days, following the successful protest at St Heliers School in Auckland last month.

The first is at Milson School in Palmerston North. On Thursday afternoon (February 27) Belinda Lewer learned in a school newsletter that her youngest child will be placed in a New “Christian Religious Education” Class from March 14, unless she writes to the school asking for him to be opted out. She has written that request, because the classes go against her conscience.

But she says this will reduce his education time, and he has already shown emotional issues about the course. So she met principal Vanessa Pitt and asked the school board to refrain from having the classes during school lesson time and make them outside school hours or during the lunch break.
She has followed directions by the HRC mediator and is awaiting response from the school before she takes the next step required to complete the lodgement of her complaint.

Lewer’s older son is in a class that won’t have the programme but it is available if he chooses to attend in another religious instruction class. This class for years 5 and 6, is planned to be held before school starts, but Lewer is concerned about that too, because it includes a free Weet-bix breakfast, which Lewer says seems like “bribery of the lower socio-economic classes in our community .”

School board chairperson Sarah Spillane says the board will meet tomorrow morning (March 4) to discuss the issue. She rejects the suggestion that the breakfasts are bribery. She says other children are welcome to have the breakfasts without attending RI. They are not provided by the RI providers, but by Sanitarium, which is offering these at other schools as well.

Meanwhile a couple at another Palmerston school heard of Lewer’s protest and began their own. They’ve contacted the Human Rights Commission but have deferred making a formal complaint, following a “positive” meeting with the school principal this afternoon (March 3). Because the meeting went well, the protestors don’t want their school to be named, pending consultation with the school board this month.

Lewer and the other Palmerston North group have contacted friends at about five other Palmerston North schools, trying to stir up protests. And protestors at Glendowie School in Auckland have won a compromise solution. In a newsletter on Thursday February 27, the school announced changes to its religious instruction programme, following protests from parents inspired by the St Heliers move:

  • Parents who want their children to take part in RI will have to sign to give their permission. David Hines, PRO for Secular Education Network says it is a sore point that the law allows schools to place children into religious classes unless their parents make a written request to opt them out. That meant children ended up in these classes merely because their parents forgot to complete a form.
    “So this is a substantial improvement.”
  • The Glendowie deal also says copies of the syllabus will be available at the school office for parents to see. Hines says parents have complained of a lack of information about what RI programmes actually teach.
  • The package also says if parents give written permission, their children will be placed in an alternative programme in the library and computer room with a programme including opportunities for reading and research around units of inquiry and maths games.

Hines says that sounds like an improvement on the meaningless activities given to opted out children in some other schools. “However, it still collides with a key objection to all forms of RI … the children whose parents send them to the library will be separated from their classmates on the grounds of their parents religion. This puts unfair pressure on children to attend the RI classes.

Hines says it seems too much to be coincidence that so many changes are being made to RI programmes within a few days. All four schools have been using staff supplied by the Churches Education Commission. The Secular Education Network has assisted the protests at St Heliers and the two Palmerston North Schools. It wasn’t involved in the Glendowie changes, but became aware of them through the St Heliers campaign.

Hines says the Secular Education Network now has 642 members. Its Facebook page has gone viral in the last few days, with dozens joining in the last few days. It lost one member who couldn’t cope with the number of new Facebook notifications. It is setting up a hotline to cope with the increasing number wanting to discuss issues privately.