Religious Education Heads to High Court

Human Rights Lawyer Claims Bill of Rights Breach

complaint about the unfair treatment of a 9-year-old girl whose family opted her out of a Bible in Schools programme has escalated into a High Court battle that could see religious education removed from public schools. The Churches Education Commission, which provides bible courses to 660 New Zealand schools, will head to the High Court to fight for the continuation of these courses.

The McClintock family chose for their daughter to not take Red Beach School’s optional religious studies class and were dissatisfied with how she was treated. The family said their daughter, Violet McClintock, was made to sit in the corner of her classroom and read a book alone. Represented by Auckland-based human rights lawyer, Richard Francois, the McClintocks have taken legal action.

Francois argues that Violet’s treatment, and the treatment of other students who opt out of similar programmes is discriminatory. Francois claims that Section 78 of the Education Act, which allows schools to halt regularly scheduled classes for up to an hour every week for religious instruction, breaches the Bill of Rights. Francois is going to make a full legal bid to have it repealed later this year.

The Churches Education Commission (CEU), the largest provider of Bible in Schools programmes in the country, is attempting to secure a place in the debate to argue for the benefits of the programme. 

“We’ve got 657 programmes, 65,000 kids. This could have a huge effect on what we do. We’d like to be part of any debate deciding what happens in the future,” a representative of the commission said. The commission could not divulge any further details before the hearing.

While Francois and the McClintock family argue that religious education takes time away from core studies, the CEU believes that taking the programme has many benefits and doesn’t discriminate against non-Christian pupils.

“There are a few main reasons that people choose to have it. One of these is heritage, lots of non-Christians choose to attend to honour their heritage, or have Christian relatives. Schools find it useful to help children understand our society,” said the CEU. “It helps kids relate to each other. It reinforces values the Ministry of Education has set out, and can help academic performance in other areas.”

The commission argues that acknowledging the spiritual elements at school is highly important for children from all backgrounds.  

This article first appeared in Issue 13, 2015.
Posted 10:59am Sunday 24th May 2015 by Amber Allott.