RELIGION IN SCHOOLS
The current debate through the media in favour and against religious education in public schools deserves our attention. What is at issue is the alleged discrimination in favour of pupils attending these classes in school time with aggrieved parents initiating court action to relegate these classes to extracurricular status. Noteworthy in this regard is the obvious positive attitude of a majority of parents in favour of Christian understanding in keeping with the founding principles of our country.
Secular versus faith based education is a divisive issue in many countries and will assume greater importance as our society becomes more multi-ethnic with competing doctrines requiring accommodation. With a minority being able to afford the advantage of a church affiliated or belief associated education there is an expectation that children in the State system should not be deprived of access to knowledge that underpins our ethical values regardless of the largely secular society we live in. As one favourably disposed mother pointed out, as long as we continue to officially celebrate Christmas and Easter, we acknowledge our Christian heritage and our children have a right to understand their meaning. Opponents to this argument reserve the right of religious non-observance on the grounds of exclusion with harmful effects on their children under the influence of evangelical fundamentalist teachers. Taking such classes outside normal school hours would be their preferred option.
Such arguments are not unique to New Zealand and from my experience can be dealt with in different ways. At an overseas secondary school I attended, religious education formed part of the curriculum, but was provided by clergy from the three major denominations in that country. Non-believers were allowed to engage in other activities. It was specific to the doctrine and teachings of each church. Interestingly in South Africa this formula was not adhered to as it would have been a source of conflict between the three branches of the Dutch Reformed Church. In place of lessons with a religious focus we were taught ethics based on Christian principles that were also applicable to students without religious orientation. In both these situations there was little evidence of conflict.
It would be a tragedy if the judicial process were to override the good intentions of a majority of parents to instil a basic understanding of the principles of Christianity in their children at the dictate of a minority of dissenters. We can only hope and pray for a good outcome.