The Constitution does not allow schools to choose to adopt religion or be a particular religion, the Johannesburg High Court heard on Wednesday. Instead, it allows religious activities to take place at schools or other state institutions, which is not the same as teachers running religious assemblies.
On the second day of what could be a precedent-setting case, the Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie (Ogod), represented by Section 27, is seeking an order declaring six public schools in Gauteng and the Western Cape to be in violation of the constitution and the National Policy on Religion and Education.
The six single-religion schools were singled out for having unconstitutional religious practices that did not accommodate the variety of religions that the South African Schools Act protects, other than Christianity.
HP Van Nieuwenhuizen‚ one of the advocates acting for applicant Ogod chairperson, Hans Pietersen‚ argued that court judgments interpret the Constitution to allow religious events to take place "at" schools but not be conducted "by" school staff. The advocate read the dictionary definitions of "at" and "by" to the court.
He said when schools adopt a religious belief or endorse a particular religion, as decided by the elected school governing body‚ they are breaching the Constitution. The Constitution allows religion at state institutions as long as it is voluntary and equitable.
Pietersen does not want schools running Christian assemblies or voluntary Christian meetings at break. He does not object to meetings being held after school or on weekends by external organisations using the premises, but he told TMG Digital that he does not want strangers [teachers] indoctrinating his child.
Pietersen was first alerted to the religious nature of schools when his triplets were in Grade R in 2009 and the school wanted to hold a "Jesus week" in which pupils [aged six] who were "for Jesus" would wear yellow armbands. He felt this was exclusionary. His objection stopped the "Jesus week" from going ahead.
Pietersen has asked the Johannesburg High Court to interdict all public schools from having Bible readings at assembly‚ having Christian slogans or badges‚ having voluntary Christian meetings at break‚ or allowing prayer in class and at sports matches.
He initially targeted six Afrikaans schools, but his request has been modified to apply to every school in SA. This could affect government schools that identify as majority Muslim or Hindu.