Religion in Public Schools: THE BAD NEWS ABOUT THE GOOD NEWS
A warning to all School Governing Bodies (ONLY PUBLIC SCHOOLS)
Earlier this month, Cause for Justice, communicated its decision to not launch a public interest appeal on limited grounds, mainly because of 3 inter-related reasons, which were:
- The outcome of the case was mostly favourable to the religious community;
- There are a number of classes/types of public schools that remain unaffected by the part of the judgment that could be viewed as adverse to religious/associational freedom; and
- Even the part of the judgment that can be viewed as less favourable to free religious expression in the public school environment, leaves ample room for individual schools (through their School Governing Bodies (SGBs)) to arrange their affairs in a manner most suitable to the demands of their own particular circumstances.
The assumption underlying this decision, which was not as clearly communicated, is that public schools/SGBs will – in response to the judgment – stand their ground and not succumb to unfounded claims or attacks from outside or within.
THE GOOD NEWS TURNING BAD?
Although there is a lot in the court’s judgment to be pleased about, such pleasantness is dependent on a right response from SGBs in predominantly religious communities.
To use an example: The court’s order prohibits a public school from promoting adherence to a single religion to the exclusion of others.
Putting it differently, public schools may not –
Coerce pupils to adhere to, i.e. become followers of or believers in a particular religion, and
Exclude certain religions from the school, i.e. prohibit pupils from belonging/adhering to the religion of their choice.
This, however clearly does not require a public school to sanitise all its policy, promotional and other documentation/material of any and all references to religion.
It has come to our attention that advice/guidance is going out that public schools should remove all references to religion from its documentation, presumably in order to play it safe and avoid becoming targets of attacks from outside or within. While such advice may be pragmatic and achieve certain goals, the opportunity cost of following it may be the forfeiture of exactly the constitutional freedoms CFJ and others fought hard to protect in the recent court case.
It could result in the good news turning bad.
THE RIGHT RESPONSE – KEEPING THE GOOD NEWS GOOD
The only way to turn the nominal good news of the judgment into real good news on individual school level, is to avoid a knee-jerk reaction and to revisit school documentation to the extent required by the judgment AND NO MORE.
Cause for Justice remains at public schools’ disposal to assist in navigating these sometimes murky-looking waters. We encourage all public schools to stand firm in the exercise and defence of personal and collective freedoms and to not succumb to unfounded pressures from whichever quarters.