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
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.
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