Religion in schools: ‘Ruling will have ramifications’

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Sociology expert and senior lecturer at the University of the Free State, Dr. Sethuleho Matebesi, says the ruling yesterday by the Johannesburg High Court against the promotion or favour of one religion in South Africa’s public schools, is likely to generate a heavy backlash from parents, school governing bodies as well as religious organizations.
Dr Matebesi says while he understands the court ruling was to ensure that non-Christian learners do not feel discriminated against, he believes that the ruling will have ramifications in the South African society, which is predominately a Christian society.
“As many parents decide on a school for their children based on the school’s values and sometimes even the religion it ascribes to, the court’s decision to ban all schools that promote or favour one religion over another is likely to face much criticism from parents, school governing bodies and other affected partners,” he says.
Dr Matebesi says as religion forms a fundamental part of the identity of many South Africans, many could also view the ruling as one that violates their religious rights and beliefs.
“If public Christian schools cannot teach the values of one religion over another, the alternative is perhaps for the department of education to look at teaching universal principles of moral values, such as trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.”
He says this will help ease the department’s burden with Christian public schools where conflicts of religion exists between a school and the community it serves.
Meanwhile, the Organisation for Religious Education and Democracy (Ogod), which initially brought the case to the court, says although most of its demands were rejected, the court’s ruling was a fair one and that schools should not focus on teaching and promoting one religion, but should rather teach all religions.
“By only focusing on teaching one religion in schools, the rights and religious beliefs of others at the school who do not form part of that religion are violated,” said founder and chairperson of Ogod, Hans Pietersen.
Pietersen also adds that schools should not have the responsibility of religious instruction, but parents and guardians should rather leave this responsibility to the religious institutions of their choice.
The six schools which Ogod brought the case against as well as trade union Solidarity intend to oppose the ruling as they believe religious instruction in public schools should be retained. Spokesperson for the department of education in the Free State, Howard Ndaba said he could not comment on how the court’s decision impacts the department as the leaders are yet to sit and discuss the implications thereof.
Mr Paul Colditz, CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (FEDSAS), says yesterday’s judgement has reconfirmed two core principles in FEDSAS’ approach to school governance.
“The first is that the Constitution is the highest authority against which decisions are measured. The second is that public education can only be successful if all role-players are involved. Blaming the State for everything that goes wrong is simply to shift your responsibility. The success of schools influences the entire society, irrespective of whether you have children at school or not. The message is simple: Be involved in the public school in your community.” – Pulane Choane

pulane@centralmediagroup.co.za