New Zealand is one of the last remaining Western countries to allow Christian education in state schools. A current challenge to the country’s Education Act, which makes provision for Religious education in schools, could consign this status to history.
Jeff McClintock, whose daughter attends a primary school in Auckland, has been joined by the Secular Education Network (SEN) in an attempt to repeal Section 78 of New Zealand’s Education Act. This section allows schools to set aside no more than 60 minutes “for the purposes of religious instruction given by voluntary instructors approved by the school’s board”.
New Zealand is one of the last remaining Western countries to allow Christian education in state schools
The Churches Education Commission (CEC), the largest provider of such voluntary instruction in schools, is deeply concerned about the impact of repealing Section 78. Stephanie Sewell, CEC’s national director, explains: “This is happening, and we need to wake up the Christian community. It won’t happen overnight, but if it succeeds there will be no religious instruction in state primary schools or colleges. No prayers, or hymns, no Maori prayers.”
Mr McClintock complained to his daughter’s primary school, Red Beach School, when he found out that she had attended Religious Instruction (RI) classes. But he took his complaint a step further, and with the support of the SEN, decided to sue both the Red Beach School board of trustees and the Attorney General.
CEC was accepted as an ‘interested non-party’ to the case due to its long-standing involvement with RI in schools. It is the largest provider of RI programmes throughout New Zealand, with 2,500 volunteers visiting more than 600 state primary schools throughout New Zealand to provide programmes for around 60,000 children each week. The Bible-based lessons typically include stories, songs, and drama.
The case wasn’t heard: the High Court in Auckland threw out the case after the plaintiff failed to meet the deadlines for submissions to the court.
It’s important to note here the legislative background to McClintock’s case. Under current legislation, neither schools nor parents are compelled to have children attend RI classes. Section 78 is clear that schools do not have to have any RI whatsoever. It is up to each school’s Board of Trustees to decide whether to offer an RI programme at their school or not. And even after the trustees of a given school decide to offer it (which could be about any religion, not just Christianity), the parents have the right to choose whether their child attends the classes.
This preserves freedom of choice at two levels: the freedom of each school and the freedom of all parents. This is important because it means that the legislation is in line with the Human Rights Act and the NZ Bill of Rights, which guarantee freedom to choose and freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief.
The current state of play
Even though the current legislation gives McClintock, and indeed all parents, the freedom to opt out, he and the SEN pressed on with the case after it was thrown out of the High Court. The case was appealed to the Court of Appeal in Wellington. At the beginning of June, the court reserved its decision but did propose a streamlined case that would refine issues to one of principle. Under the proposed plan, Red Beach School would no longer be a party and the SEN may even replace McClintock as the plaintiff.
New Zealand’s courts don’t have any power to change the law and can only make recommendations based on their findings. But Parliament can decide whether any further action should be taken and has the ability to remove religious instruction in schools. If the law changes, it would affect all religious programmes in schools, Christian or other.
There is no clear need for Section 78 to be struck down. The current legislation does not conflict with New Zealand’s Human Rights Act or Bill of Rights, and it allows both schools and parents the right to opt out of RI. It is hard to see what benefit a change in legislation would bring, which makes the case against appear more like an attempt to get religion (read Christianity) out of New Zealand’s schools by a small minority. We’ll be watching closely to see what happens next.