O-G-O-D v 6 public schools: Will the courts take a secular stance or stay neutral?

Should the South African public sphere be regarded as “non-secular” (as stated in the National Policy on Religion and Education)?

It has been speculated by several lawyers and legal researchers that Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie v 6 public schools (O-G-O-D) (to be heard in the Gauteng High Court) will be a watershed case for the interpretation of the right to religious freedom (section 15 of the Constitution) and the right to education (especially sections 29(2) and (3)) within South Africa. It is also expected by many that it will eventually reach the highest court on constitutional matters – the Constitutional Court. O-G-O-D brought the application against six public schools arguing that alleged religious practices in these schools were unconstitutional. The alleged religious practices referred to in the application all amount to Christian practices.

This case will reflect whether the South African public sphere is truly regarded as “non-secular” (as stated in the National Policy on Religion and Education). An extreme secular approach by the Gauteng High Court will result in a cold shoulder to religion within the South African public sphere and therefore, the public school. However, hopefully, the historical religious and racial discrimination that formed part of Christian National Education during apartheid will prompt the Court not to repeat past mistakes. If the public school is to be framed by secular or liberal values only, this will be similar to past totalitarian public schools governed under the exclusive and totalitarian Christian National Education. This is so because claims of the public school being subjected to neutral secular and liberal values are impossible, as neutrality in itself is a myth. Both secularism and liberalism represent non-religious belief systems with various set of values that determine its scope. Just because these belief systems are not religious, does not mean that they are neutral.

An approach that promotes the values of human dignity, equality and freedom will recognise the equal worth of all religious and non-religious belief systems and ideologies. The recognition of the equal worth of all religious and non-religious belief systems within the public school will require the formation of a public school, not only from the perspective of the secular, but also from the perspective of all religions present. Such positive recognition of diverse religions in the public school will amount to the active protection of human dignity by the South African courts and government. This will not be an easy task, but seen within the context of South African history and especially grave human rights violations, it is a necessary and inevitable one.

About the Author:  Georgia du Plessis is a research fellow at the University of Free State and PhD candidate at the University of Antwerp in Belgium.


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