Discrimination at school

New Zealand has good Human Rights Legislation making discrimination on grounds of religion or ethical belief illegal. Despite this religious discrimination in favour of Christian beliefs occurs. Obvious examples are the use of Christian prayers in Parliament, some local councils and in state and other ceremonies which should be secular.

Religious ceremonies in public schools have been contentious and are difficult to handle. the represent an example of beliefs being imposed on an essentially defenseless group (children). Often protest or other action by a concerned parent can lead to specific actions isolating the child and inviting peer group disapproval. In my view this situation amounts to blackmail. The best solutions is to run public schools as secular institutions and not allow imposition of any non-secular ceremony on children. some parents may be unhappy about this but they do have the alternative of the non-secular private faith-based schools.

The New Zealand Human Rights Commission occasionally receives complaints about religious discrimination in schools. For instance, for the year ending June 2006 3.4% (70 cases) of the complaints it received related to unlawful discrimination on grounds of religious belief. However, they seem unable to resolve these complaints where the rights of the non-religious are being violated. The example below is taken from the September 2007 Newsletter of Te Korowai Whakapono: New Zealand Interfaith Network. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent).

Religion in public school

What happened

Yvonne had chosen to send her five year old daughter Lily to a public school, and was adamant that her children would have a secular education. However, she discovered while attending a school assembly that the children regularly sang the Lord’s Prayer to open proceedings, and offered prayers as part of their assembly presentations on class projects. Yvonne was aware that the Education Act allowed for Bible study in schools, provided the schools were ‘closed’ in that period and that parents were asked for permission to let their children attend those classes. However this primary school had not informed Yvonne of any religious content of its education. Yvonne was particularly concerned that offering prayers in thanks for educational presentations were “not just confined to a ritualistic singing of the Lord’s prayer”, but included such invocations as “thanking God for not dissolving the dinosaur bones”. This meant that class-time would have been spent on preparing prayers during standard curriculum time, and in direct relation to curriculum material. Yvonne complained to the school, which offered to remove Lily from assembly during prayers. Yvonne and her husband felt that this would make Lily feel stigmatised and excluded. She took her complaint to the Ministry of Education, which offered the opinion that assembly might not strictly be classified as ‘class time’ and could therefore fall outside the secular requirements of the Education Act. Yvonne made a complaint to the Commission against the Ministry of Education.

The Disputes Resolution Process

With Yvonne’s permission, the mediator contacted the Ministry of Education to clarify their position on the case. The Ministry had discussed the case with the principal of the school, and suggested they meet with Yvonne to try to come to a resolution face to face. At the mediation meeting, both sides were able to discuss the philosophies behind their positions, as well as the Education Act and relevant international case law on the issue provided by the mediator.


The school pledged to remove the religious nature of the expressions of thanks before class presentations at assembly, and seek more feedback on and provide more opportunities to opt-out of other religious activities such as Christmas Carol services and the Bible Studies course. Instead of agreeing to stop performing the Lord’s Prayer at assembly, they proposed incorporating occasional prayers from other religions and cultures. They also restated the various ways that Lily could miss the prayer at assembly while minimising stigma. Yvonne was unhappy with the proposals around the assembly prayers, because she felt they would still be stigmatising, and the aim of her complaint was to have less religion in schools, not more. Yvonne began investigating alternative out-of-zone schools for Lily.

Unfortunately the lack of proper resolution of this case is probably quite common when it is the rights of the non-religious which are being violated.

Related Articles:
Teaching religion
Special rights for religion?
Religious Diversity Statement
Religious diversity includes “non-believers”
Trends in religious belief in New Zealand
Destiny of Christian privilege?
Helen Clark’s diplomacy
Christian prayer problems
Common values, common action?
A national anthem recognising diversity?
Overcoming religious problems
“Let us pray . . . “
Religion and children
Religion and Schools
Atheism and religious diversity

19 responses to “Discrimination at school

  1. I fear that this issue is even more complex than this!

    Muslim students have been forbid to say their prayers at various times of the day, as they fall during class times, etc.

    The situation is this, as I see it:

    Whether non-theist/religious, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or whatever worldview, the possibility for the student to feel ‘stigmatised’ will always exist. This is no different in non-educational settings.

    Should schools try to reduce these possibilities? Of course! But there will always be some students that are different. These different students will feel different!

    A dark-skinned student at an otherwise ‘white’ school will likely be keenly aware that they are different, and they may feel a degree of stigma. A Christian student at a school in Indonesia will feel ‘weird’ when everyone stops to pray during the day. A student whose parents wish not to buy fancy new clothing for their kids (to teach them about money and resisting the pressure of advertising, etc.) will feel ‘un-cool’ for not wearing similar clothing as those around him/her.

    Now, regarding an explicitly Christian prayer being led by a teacher at a public school, I think that’s not helpful at all, and I can fully agree with the sentiments above. However, I don’t see any obvious solution to the problem, other than schools being intentionally respectful of people from various worldviews.

    Why should the entire school conform to suit the non-religious student’s desire not to pray? And, of course, why should the entire school conform to suit the Christian student’s desire to be in a classroom where the Lord’s prayer is said? As I said, the best we can do is to encourage mutual respect.

    Personally, I see this as an invaluable opportunity for students from all backgrounds and all kinds of differences to learn how to exist in a world where others are different than them!

    I grew up in Armstrongism, a ‘christian’ sect (viewed heretical by many Christians). I did not view Jesus as divine, and did not observe Christmas or Easter. In choir, when we learned Christmas songs for the Christmas concert, I had to go to the music office and file music.

    I was constantly asked by other students, “Why don’t you keep Christmas? Don’t you believe in Jesus?”

    I felt VERY different.

    I was not surprised, though. I realised that I WAS DIFFERENT!

    What better way to prepare me for the real world?
    What better way to learn respect and tolerance?

    Making it easier would not have helped me…

    Respect. A hard lesson to learn, but a valuable one!

    I appreciate the issue is more complex than I’ve represented here, but these are a few thought I had…




  2. “Why should the entire school conform to suit the non-religious student’s desire not to pray?”
    Because it is offensive. Such ceremonies should be private to the particular group not imposed on others. Most Christians would be unhappy to being forced to participate in a Hindu or Muslim prayer or ceremony. That is why there is an argument for provision of prayer rooms in some situations. Well, Christians can also have their prayer room. That way no one gets offended, everyone’s rights are respected.


  3. That question was rhetorical, of course…

    I’m fully aware of the problems that ANY kind of prayer in schools raises, but I’m also aware of the problems that can come from a complete secularisation of schools. Isn’t it sensible and natural that the schools would reflect the culture around them?

    And one other thing. Taking students off to their ‘special’ prayer rooms… isn’t that a bit ‘stigmatising’?

    Again, I argue for respect. Let the students learn from each others’ differences. Let them learn to deal with diversity.

    Am I talking about a Christian prayer led by the teacher? Heck no. I’m talking about difference and diversity and respect.

    The differences aren’t going to go away any time soon, I suspect. We ought to learn to get along. And yes, this includes being careful not to stigmatise others…



  4. It is a matter of respect! Just let no one ideology impose itself on defenseless children (or the rest of us). If people want to pray, then do so but without imposing on others. It’s basically like smoking – go away and do it in your own space, not mine.
    Now, learning about our differences, education about cultures and religions (rather than imposing religious instruction) – I’m all for it, providing it also includes the non-religious, non-theist ethical and spiritual traditions like atheism, humanism, etc.
    Difference probably won’t ever go away. We live in a multi-cultural, pluralistic, society. It’s just that some people (basically the major religion) can’t seem to accept that.


  5. Again, it seems natural that a school ‘climate’ should reflect the culture it is in. This ‘reflection’ has to do with the ‘respect’ of the people from the culture it is reflecting.

    For a parent (Atheist or Christian, for example) to want their child’s school to reflect only their specific worldview, is (for lack of a more balanced word) selfish.

    Again, the term ‘religion’ is unhelpful. We all have a worldview, and countries like NZ have several. It seems quite normal to me that the schools would respect and reflect these worldviews. Sure, there may need to be some adjustments and awareness needs, but I submit that the problem is not that the schools reflect the worldviews of the culture, but how they do so…



  6. In Yvonne’s case the school was not reflecting our culture in an accurate or a humane way – it was imposing a sectarian religious ceremony. In the process violating the rights (and very possibly offending) others. Unfortunately, in NZ it is not uncommon for some people to try and make their school reflect, and impose, simply a Christian worldview.


  7. Yes. I think imposing a ceremony is most certainly a violation of rights. Also, I have no problem, as a Christian, stating that Christians should not try to make their school reflect and impose simply a Christian worldview.

    My simple point is that your original suggestion of running schools as ‘secular’ institutions is unhelpful – if it were even possible to do so. Again, the term ‘secular’ is just another word (in most people’s understanding, anyway) for ‘non-religious’, and there we have the problem with the term ‘religion’ again.

    Again, we all have a worldview. The pervasiveness of the term ‘religion’ allows some to have the illusion that they are ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’ or ‘just sitting on the side’, etc. We are all in this thing called ‘Life’ together.

    We don’t need less religious instruction in schools, we need a heck of a lot more and it needs to be much better than it is. Education. That will help us understand each other and live peacefully and constructively together – not avoiding each other.



  8. Secular schools unhelpful? Unhelpful to who? Those who want to indoctrinate our children perhaps. Surely even those who wish to raise their children in their own particular version of religion would benefit from not having schools impose a different version.

    I know you are using your own definitions of secular and religion but don’t let it cloud the real issues. I just can’t see how you can justify your last paragraph. Religious instruction is brainwashing – it doesn’t educate or help develop a social morality.


  9. I can appreciate where you, an atheist, are coming from in your desire for ‘secular’ education. I’m saying it’s an ‘unhelpful’ idea, because there is no such thing as a purely ‘secular’ view. All views of the world (worldviews) come from somewhere – there is no view from nowhere. There is no one who has no view of the world…

    Also, regarding that paragraph, when I speak of ‘more religious instruction’, I’m not suggesting, of course, that any religion (worldview) is taught as being the ‘correct’ one, or whatever. What I am suggesting, however, is that we need urgently to understand this thing called religion. It is vital that children be given the needed and necessary perspective to help them live peacefully with each other.


  10. Yes, let’s understand it – lets teach about it – and at the same time teach about the non-religious ethical and spiritual systems. That can surely be done in a secular environment, one in which no religious belief is being imposed. In fact I suspect “faith” schools might have problems teaching about religions.
    However you play with words like secular it still comes back to human rights – and in this case the Human Rights Commission seemed unable (or possibly not really prepared to) defend Yvonne and Lily’s rights.
    I agree that we need to urgently understand religion as it seems to play a central role in some big political problems. To some extent these problems may be unique to “religion” but I suspect we would profit from widening such an investigation to the role of ideology in general. I can still clearly remember Mao’s so called “Cultural Revolution” – so much widespread persecution and murder carried out by immature young people mobilised under the control and inspiration of an ideology. A bit like some of the religious movements of today but we wouldn’t normally include it under that banner. Mao was responsible for many more deaths than Stalin but I watched while quite a few New Zealanders applauded his actions, even arguing for the relevance of Maoist ideas in New Zealand. These weren’t just Communist Party members -they included liberals and many Christians.
    So what is it about human minds which enables so many to get caught up in ideological movements like this?


  11. It’s a great question!

    I think part of finding its answer would entail thinking about the difference between ‘instruction'(or teaching) and ‘brainwashing’ (or mind-control).

    Everyone wants to influence the world (or at least has been influenced by people they would like others to be influenced by…), but how to do this? Who has the ‘say so’ on which ideas are worth influencing others with?

    Bible College of NZ principal Mark Strom (who has heaps of wisdom, I think) has something of a personal slogan about his desire for the face of Christianity to change ‘from guilt and fear to grace and freedom’… The problem , he says, is that unfortunately (and not just with churches, of course) ‘guilt and fear works.’

    People are suggestible. This in itself is not the problem, but it simply shows that we humans have power and influence over each other.

    Power is not the problem, how it is used is.
    Influence is not the problem, how it is done is.

    Well, at least that’s how I’d like to influence people!! 🙂



  12. I should probably add that my comment above shows precisely 1) that I too, want to influence the world, and 2) I’ve been influenced by people that I would like others to be influenced by (e.g. Mark Strom)…

    Who’s to say that Mark Strom (or myself) has any ideas worth sharing?

    I think (again, my idea!) we have this ‘knack’ or ‘ability’ to ‘guage’ or ‘test’ ideas, and see how well they match up with the way things really are… I think we call it ‘wisdom’.

    One of Mark Strom’s favourite verses from Proverbs is, “Dog, vomit; fool, folly.” or the fuller treatment, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool returns to his folly.”

    That is wisdom, I suggest, because it represents how things really are.

    Anyway, I’m rambling…



  13. We all want to have influence but let’s not have this as an excuse for violating the human rights of others. You still don’t seem to be concerned about Yvonne and Lily’s rights. (Neither does the Human Rights Commission, apparently).


  14. No Ken. I’m concerned enough about Yvonne and Lily, but I’m also aware that the issue is a complex one – complex enough that it goes right to the question of how we should influence each other as humans.

    I’ve never defended (heck, even mentioned) the HRC, by the way.



  15. I find that disappointing. We should never influence each other that way. We should show respect.
    The case is interesting because of current promotion of the idea of teaching about religion as a way of overcoming extremism and developing respectful attitudes. If we are not prepared to stand up for the rights of others (like Yvonne and Lily) I can’t see that the teaching about religion could be honest. I suspect your attitude is not uncommon amongst many Christians and would predict that teaching about religion will not really be tolerated. There will be many (mainly Christians) who don’t allow their children to learn about other religions. And I think in practice the teaching will not be even-handed and there will be a strong resistance to including the non-religious ethical and spiritual systems.
    Perhaps we are just not mature enough to accept a pluralistic approach to beliefs.


  16. I’m disappointed as well, because it appears that you’ve not understood me. When you say we should never influence each other ‘that way’, which ‘way’ are you talking about? Have we mis-read each other?

    Of course we have to stand up for the rights of others! That phrase, however, is not very helpful past a certain point, because the ‘rights’ of one end where anothers’ rights begin…

    My entire point has been, and is, that the question of human rights (including when those rights are breached in the course of influencing/educating/teaching each other) is complex.

    I agree that many Christians don’t really want to know a lot about other worldviews. For example, when I decided to study religion, a few of my well-meaning friends were surprised that I wanted to go through the ‘religious studies’ program at a ‘state’ school, instead of a ‘bible college’. I am SO glad I did. For example, I was able to take Judaism from a Jewish rabbi. I didn’t get the Christian ‘this is what Jews believe and why their wrong’ perspective, I got it straight from the Jewish perspective (not that there’s only ‘one’ Jewish perspective, of course!).

    Anyway, I think you’ve misunderstood me.

    I really, genuinely DO care that Yvonne and Lily had to go through that experience. I really, genuinely DO think that the HRC should have acted sooner…

    One final query… When you speak of ‘non-religious ethical and spiritual systems’, what ‘systems’ do you speak of other than non-theism/atheism? It’s the word ‘system’ that has me curious…




  17. I am just using system as a generic term encompassing the ethical and spiritual beliefs and traditions. I tend not to like naming beliefs because the names mean different things to different people. My atheistic belief system could be described as “secular humanist,” for example, but that could mean a different thing to you than it does to me. (And I don’t like to be limited by such a name anyway).

    “the ‘rights’ of one end where anothers’ rights begin’ This shouldn’t be the case for humane (i.e. respectful) human rights. I don’t see than anybody has the “right” to impose their ceremonies on another. To deny that is not a limitation of human rights. It’s like the case for smokers. Smokers have a right to smoke – they just don’t have a right to impose their smoke on others. Smokers generally accept that reality. I wish Christians could see the parallel with smokers. That no one is limiting their rights by requesting that they respect the rights of others by not imposing their ceremonies.

    I really don’t think human rights in this area are “complex” – I think that is just a way of clouding the issue. No doubt Nazis saw the question of how to handle the Jews as “complex”, but it was very simple for the Jews. I know, an extreme example, but complexity is an argument to justify doing nothing in these sorts of situations. The offender thinks it is complex because they want to go on offending. It’s very simple in this case. Just ask yourself how you would feel if a ceremony was imposed on you which violated your beliefs, and made assumptions that you accepted the imposed beliefs. I think the latter point is why I feel so offended when Christian prayers and other ceremonies are imposed on me. (Completely different when I voluntarily go into Christian situations such as churches and ceremonies – and I enjoy a good requiem or orthodox chant as much as any “believer”).


  18. I feel very much the same about the term ‘christian’ as you do ‘secular humanist’… 🙂

    I know that the word ‘complex’ is probably used as a smoke-screen, but I’m not doing that (at least I’m not trying to!).. I actually think about this kind of stuff.

    I’ve never entertained the idea that ceremonies should be imposed on others.
    I’ve never entertained the idea that Yvonne and Lily’s situation doesn’t matter…
    I’ve never entertained the idea that the school in Yvonne and Lily’s story acted appropriately…
    etc, etc.

    I’m fully behind protecting the basic human rights of all people, but I don’t consider it my right to have comfort. Comfort is a luxury and convenience. We Westerners have it so good, and have so many choices that most of the world doesn’t have, we arrogantly assume that we have a right to comfort. When will we learn that tough experiences often make us stronger? I’m rambling…

    Your smoking example is too narrow, I’m afraid. It assumes that only some people ‘smoke’, and as long as ‘they’ keep it away from me, then that’s fine… Human relationships are more – dare I use the word again! – complex than that. As if ‘religion/worldviews’ were the only thing we have to not impose on others…

    I’m off to bed now…



  19. Pingback: Human rights for the non-religious « Open Parachute

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