The Ministry of Education are finally getting close to publishing guidelines for schools about allowing Religious Instruction classes.

From what I’ve heard, the government first talked of releasing guidelines in the early 2000s, once it became clear that the Human Rights Act and Bill of Rights act were both potentially in conflict with how RI was being offered in New Zealand schools. Unfortunately the idea of releasing guidelines was dropped pretty quickly, and may have had something to do with pressure from churches.

The guidelines are okay, but could be better. They start by talking about legal issues with offering RI and defining what RI is, which is good:

“Religious instruction is the teaching or endorsing of a particular faith. It is the non-neutral, partisan teaching of religion which supports or encourages student belief in the religion being taught. Religious instruction is not part of the New Zealand Curriculum”

The document then gives a set of guidelines, and for each guideline gives some details and then an example or two of a fictional school and how it decided to act to comply with the guidelines.

One obvious criticism of the guidelines is that every single example ends up with the school offering Religious Instruction. In none of the examples does a school decide not to run RI classes, or to stop running RI classes. The bias seems obvious, and surprising given that over half of the primary schools in NZ decide not to run RI classes. The examples contain phrases like:

  • “The board... decided to offer religious instruction”
  • “a board decided to offer a Christian based, and an Islam based, religious instruction programme“
  • “A board decided... to continue to provide religious instruction”
  • “the board decided to allow religious instruction”
  • “A board was allowing a religious instruction programme”

Even an example where both the school and the RI instructor screw up, and allow an exempted child into an RI class, ends up with the school deciding to continue offering the classes.

I’m also disappointed that these are only guidelines, rather than instructions, to schools. I’m worried that many schools who offer RI, and haven’t done a good job so far of treating exempted kids fairly, will simply ignore these guidelines and carry on regardless, oblivious to the issues brought up in these guidelines.

For me, one of the big issues that I think we need to stress is that the churches that choose to offer Religious Instruction in schools are doing it knowing full well that the clause in law that lets them in to schools was only added after a lot of pressure, and goes against the thrust of successive Education Acts which state that education in NZ should be secular. Legally, the loophole lets schools claim that a single classroom in the school is technically “closed” for up to an hour a week while church volunteers come in to the school to talk to kids about how their particular religious belief is the correct one. I get that it’s legally okay for churches to gain access to children in this way, but I have no idea how how they see it as an ethical choice.

Submissions need to be sent in by Friday, and I would recommend that if you have the time let the government know your general views on RI in schools - as the consultation says:

“You may also like to comment on religion in schools more generally”