Religious rights are protected — but no religion should dominate
Religion has a crucial role to play in nation-building but should not be imposed on students at public schools, according to some parties, speaking on Wednesday.
This comes as the case between the Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig and Demokrasie (Ogod), six schools and the Minister of Basic Education continues to be heard at the Gauteng high court.
The National Policy on Education and Religion stipulates that all religious rights are protected, but no religion ought to dominate over others. It views the school as an organ of state and it may therefore not serve as an indoctrinating facility but must reflect the diverse nature of the school community.
Gauteng’s policy on education gives the school governing body (SGB) power to design and implement religion and inter-related activities at schools at a grassroots level.
Education expert Graeme Bloch said religion should not form a part of daily life at school, citing that children were entitled to think for themselves and should not to be told what to believe at school. He added that educators should not get caught in religious indoctrination but rather keep their religious views outside the classroom.
Professor Farid Esack of the religious studies department at the University of Johannesburg, said the case before Judge Colin Lamont has a strong legal footing as he believes that in many ways children are hostages to the system and religion is imposed on them, and this is unacceptable.
Esack maintained that subsidised schools, as all public schools are, have an obligation to stick to the rules of the government: "I don’t think there should be space for religion in schools. Religious lines must be drawn by the religious communities."
Matthew Chaskalson SC, representing the Basic Education Minister as a respondent in the case brought by Ogod, argued there was no conflict between the national and provincial policies on religion, as proposed by legal counsel of the six schools cited in the case. Chakalson said there are some clear prescriptive provisions within both policies to guide SGBs, and national policy on religious diversity at schools supersedes all other provincial policies on religion and education.
"It is clear when reading the national policy that the minister does not want violations to people’s rights, but also gives schools the space to come up with creative ways to apply religious policy," Chaskalson said.
"SGBs are not separate and distinct from the state" Advocate Adila Hassim, representing the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, added.
It is clear when reading the national policy that the minister does not want violations to people’s rights, but also gives schools the space to come up with creative ways to apply religious policyMatthew Chaskalson SC Representing the basic education minister
However, Advocate Jan d’Oliveira, representing the respondents, countered that while schools were an organ of state, parents, educators and learners were the rights bearers of the right to freedom of religion in that space.
Referring to the South African Schools Act, he emphasised that schools have a special jurisdictive position and cannot be seen as an ordinary organ of state as the SGB cannot be identified with any tier of government and makes choices themselves. "In the context of the Act, the SGB chooses a pathway that they themselves will follow" said D’Oliveira.
Esack conceded that, in the same breath, South African schools have, for a long time, had a Christian ethos and many Hindu and Muslim students who have been scholars in such schools were not significantly impacted by this, nor was their religiosity or their religious ethos affected.
He highlighted how SA has always had a soft edge on secularisation with the religious community playing a crucial role as national ceremonies, such as rabbis and priests officiating over state functions, which has helped in the project of nation-building.
"That softness is now in conflict with constitutionality" Esack said. "At the heart of it is whether religion should be permitted for the greater good of society versus what is legally permissible".
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