JAYLAN BOYLE dissects the ongoing debate over religious instruction, and whether it still has a place in New Zealand’s state schools.
Jeff McClintock and his partner Lisa enrolled their daughter Violet at Red Beach School, a state primary school much like any other, back in 2010. Violet’s new school, though, is one of the roughly 40 per cent of state primary schools that offer religious instruction classes. For ‘religious’, read ‘Christian’ – Jeff says that a colleague contacted every single state primary in the country, and found no more than a few that ran non-Christian religious instruction programmes.
The legal status of religious instruction classes in state primary schools is enshrined across three sections of the Education Act 1964.
Religious instruction classes are generally run by volunteers from organisations affiliated with a particular faith, who are invited to do so by a school. Section 78 of the Act states: “any class or classes at the school, or the school as a whole, may be closed at any time or times of the school day [for religious instruction]…” Religious instruction classes cannot exceed more than 60 minutes per week, or 20 hours in a school year.
Section 79 of the Act though makes clear that nobody can be forced to take part: “No pupil enrolled at a State primary school shall be required to attend or take part in any such instruction or observances if any parent or guardian of the pupil does not wish the pupil to take part…” This means that schools can run an ‘opt-in’, or ‘opt-out’ system, but the wishes of parents who don’t require religious instruction for their children must be respected.
As the name suggests, a typical Christian religious instruction class might involve Bible stories, songs of praise, and in many cases, religious observance such as prayer.
The problem for the McClintock household, however, came up because the couple say they weren’t made aware that there was any religious instruction at Red Beach School to opt out of,
and even when they did follow procedure, Jeff McClintock says their wishes were repeatedly ignored.
“I was surprised to find my daughter coming home and talking about [religious themes], because I hadn’t heard of religious instruction, and I certainly wasn’t aware that Red Beach School ran religious instruction classes. When I looked into it, the teacher told my partner Lisa, ‘Oh, that must be the values class’. At that point I realised that what in many schools goes under the name ‘Bible in Schools’, Red Beach School ran as a programme called ‘Values in Action’.”
The point needs clarification: the McClintocks aren’t claiming they weren’t asked whether they wanted Violet to be part of ‘Values in Action’, but the wording doesn’t meet the standard of transparency to which parents have a right, says Jeff McClintock.
They felt that the Board of Trustees should change their approach in order to prevent future confusion. McClintock discovered that a 2008 Red Beach School ERO report unambiguously agreed with him. The report states: “The board should improve current practice by clarifying the weekly ‘Values in Action’ programme. Despite reassurance to parents that the programme is not ‘religious instruction’, the Education Act requires the school to be closed for instruction during these times while volunteers deliver a Bible-based values classroom programme. Information to parents should more clearly identify options for withdrawing children from these programmes.”
Red Beach School’s Board of Trustees spokesperson was unavailable for comment.
From there, says McClintock, his efforts to hold Red Beach School to the ERO recommendations were met with what could be described as either a strikingly coincidental series of administrative errors or a wilful disregard for the wishes of the McClintock family. According to McClintock, even after procedure was duly followed Violet was repeatedly put back into the Values in Action class.
Complaints to the Board of Trustees escalated to complaints to local, then national media. In May of last year McClintock took his case all the way to the High Court.
That should have given the opposing parties a chance to square up and have their say; but in a further twist to the story, Jeff’s case was ‘struck out’ on a technicality in mid-April this year: submissions hadn’t been received by the court in time. That doesn’t imply any kind of verdict in the case however, and Jeff’s lawyers have lodged an appeal that is, at time of publication, yet to be heard.
It became clear early in the piece that McClintock’s ‘crusade’ could have far-reaching implications; in January of this year the High Court began hearing applications from interested parties seeking to join proceedings. One of those approved by the Court to weigh in was the Churches Education Commission (CEC).
The CEC is the largest organisation in New Zealand running what’s traditionally been known as ‘Bible in schools’, which they now term ‘Christian Religious Education’, or CRE. They maintain their own evolving curriculum and train religious instruction volunteers. The CEC delivers their programme to approximately 650 state primary schools.
It is apparent after a visit to the CEC website or after talking to one of its representatives that one word in particular describes how the CEC would like to be understood: values.
CEC spokesperson Tracy Kirkley reinforces her organisation’s emphasis on the system of ethics and moral guidance that go hand-in-hand with Christian beliefs. Both are taught in CRE lessons, but it’s important to bear in mind that they are always there by mandate, she says.
“We have prepared our own curriculum, which is very Kiwi-based. We line it up with what’s being taught in schools in terms of values. The Bible is the resource we draw from. We connect those [Bible stories] back to the children through values-based lesson time.
“We’re there by invitation, and we feel very privileged that we have been given that opportunity. We will always fit in with what works best for a school, in terms of how they choose
to fit [religious instruction lessons] into their school time.”
When asked why she believes religious instruction should be in secular schools, Kirkley says that the CEC is helping to reflect values and beliefs that are part of New Zealand’s heritage. She says that society benefits when children are made aware of this aspect of New Zealand’s history, and that weight of numbers is its own justification.
“I think that there are a number of needs that get met [through CRE]. Christianity is still predominantly, by a very large proportion, the faith representation of New Zealanders: 48 per cent of Kiwis call themselves Christian. The next largest faith group is Hindu at two per cent. Everything else is one per cent or less. That means that there’s a significant chunk of New Zealand that still hold to these [Christian] values.”
It’s important to state clearly that in no way should the CEC be directly associated with the now defunct case involving Jeff McClintock and Red Beach School: the CEC is not a provider to Red Beach School, which, according to McClintock, runs its own bespoke programme. The CEC was simply invited, as an interested party, to join the case and bring evidence when required.
Another ‘interested party’ who joined the High Court case – though without permission to bring new evidence – was David Hines of the Secular Education Network (SEN).
The mission statement of the SEN, explains Hines, is fairly simple; they seek to “get rid of religious bias in state schools”. However it’s branded, Hines and the SEN see religious instruction classes as the nub of this perceived bias. As such, Hines opposes the main arguments that Kirkley and the CEC put forward to support their presence in secular state schools: that they’re mandated by invitation; that they emphasise values; and that New Zealand society was founded on Christian values that reflect our history and the beliefs of a large majority of its citizens.
“Well, that’s not even true,” says Hines. “Christian values are a part of it, but atheist values, sceptical values, Jewish values, Buddhist, and Māori values are all part of it as well. New Zealand had lots of values before Europeans even came on the scene.”
What about the CEC’s contention that religious instruction in schools reflects the wishes of the vast majority of New Zealanders?
“They haven’t read the census – the next largest group was 42 per cent non-religious.”
It may be surprising to learn, given Hines’s vociferous support for state school secularisation, that he professes to be a ‘Christian atheist’ and actively participates in religious celebration of the same ‘values’ that Kirkley and the CEC say they are bringing to schools.
“[Being a Christian atheist] means that I believe Jesus was an ethical teacher. I don’t follow the ‘supernatural’ side of Christianity.”
While this might seem somewhat contradictory – how can one be an active member of a faith group, and yet deny what appears to be the defining tenet of most, if not all faith groups: that God exists, influences our lives, and calls on us to believe in ‘Him’? – Hines says it’s about ‘worshipping’ the code, not the creator.
It might seem that David Hines and the CEC are reading from the same book, if not the same page: they both want people to behave as Jesus did. Hines says that, in fact, the difference is chasmic.
He believes that groups like the CEC are deceitful in their public-facing focus on Christian values and de-emphasis on beliefs, and says he’s compelled to highlight this reality.
“If you read their [religious instruction providers operating in New Zealand] syllabuses as I have, values is a very small part of it. I studied one of their syllabuses, which covered half a year
– I think it had about 18 lessons in it. All 18 lessons dealt with God, and only two dealt with values. Even those were still saying, ‘God says you must do this’.”
Hines is speaking about the Access Ministries Junior Curriculum, which has been used by the CEC. Abbie Reeve of the CEC resource development team told Education Review that as of the end of Term 2, 2016, CEC has withdrawn approval of the Access Ministries Junior Curriculum, saying, “… the content is perhaps not necessarily aligning truly to who we say we are, so we are choosing not to use it.”
One of the main points put forward by Jeff McClintock and the SEN is that religious instruction in state schools constitutes a ‘tyranny of the majority’. When this happens, they say, you get minorities. This isn’t consistent with the Bill of Rights Act 1990, says McClintock, which is in place partly to prevent democracy trampling on the rights of the individual.
“Schools are supposed to be neutral ground; by that we do not mean ‘anti-religious’. Bringing volunteer preachers into schools isn’t, I believe, consistent with the Education Act, or with the Bill of Rights Act and the Human Rights Act.
“We’re not saying that anyone should be treated differently; no-one is asking for special ‘atheist classes’, which we’ve been accused of. That’s pluralistic nonsense – ‘if you’re not teaching Christianity, you’re teaching atheism. If you’re not with us, you’re against us’.”
Tracy Kirkley and Abbie Reeve of the CEC say it’s a distortion of reality to interpret legally sanctioned religious instruction in schools as some form of coercion.
“There’s the whole freedom of choice aspect,” says Kirkley. “The court case hinges around the fact that children who’ve been opted out, or children from other faiths, are being religiously discriminated against. My response to that is that we have elected Boards of Trustees to whom we’ve given that responsibility, to choose whether they want [religious instruction] programmes or not; they’re under no compulsion.
“Our teachers are not there to guide children into a church, or guide them into anything at all. These are the decisions they need to take back to their parents and caregivers. If there is a parent who is unhappy, we want to address that. If we get a complaint, we deal with it; we have a process.”
And so we come back to ‘values’: one side says they’re simply instructing children in the values – and the belief structure – that is part of the bedrock of our shared history, and that schools and parents have the right to choose that instruction for their children – or not. Those who want God nowhere near schools say that whichever way you turn it, volunteer religious instructors are by nature evangelising children, simply by standing at the front of the class with a Bible in hand. Kirkley and Reeve strenuously deny this claim.
“We are there,” says Reeve, “to teach the Christian belief system, and the values aligned to it, but as an organisation we do not evangelise. Our teachers are trained as such, and we continually communicate that to them and train them in that. There is nothing in our lessons that requires a child to make a commitment, or agree with anything.”
And what about the lessons themselves? To the sceptical, the seeming insistence by the CEC that their lessons are taught without encouraging students to believe in God might seem a bit unconvincing. Kirkley says it’s all in the language.
Where a Christian in a church setting might say ‘I believe’, or ‘we believe’, CEC-trained teachers would say ‘Christians believe’. This extends to religious observance, like group prayer. Instructors who choose to include observance in lessons – because whereas the CEC is strict about the use of their sanctioned curriculum, instructors can apparently make their own decisions in this regard – would give the class a choice, says Kirkley.
“If there is a prayer component within any lesson, that teacher will say something like ‘I’m going to pray, if you would like to join me, that’s cool, if you don’t, that’s fine. I’m going to just close my eyes.’ There’s no compulsion. A child doesn’t have to dictate or repeat anything. There’s nothing within our lessons that would look at personal faith statements; a child doesn’t have to say ‘I believe’.”
David Hines says this is all window dressing, designed to placate the sceptical.
“The syllabus that I’ve read tells kids that God made the world, and that he made it rain. That sounds very much like creationism to me. They’re not saying that evolution is false, but it’s pretty close, isn’t it?”
Hines also makes the point that, despite best intentions, the system of neutral language that is part of the way the CEC go about their business isn’t the only model on offer. He is reluctant to talk about specific examples because some may prove to be required as evidence at some point, in whatever form the case takes in the future.
“The CEC doesn’t know about all the other organisations and syllabuses. They claim not to be using anymore an evangelistic lesson plan called ‘Connect’. We’ve found three schools in the last couple of weeks which are still using it. People who are not part of the CEC are using ultra-evangelistic syllabuses, which for, example, invite kids to go and evangelise their peers.”
One piece of ‘evidence’ that’s already out there is the review of religious instruction syllabuses conducted by Paul Morris, Professor of Religious Studies at Victoria University. According to an article published on Stuff in 2015, the syllabuses used by the CEC were, at that time, inappropriate for state schools; they ‘taught religion, rather than about religion’. He also said that while the CEC website claimed that CEC instructors use phrasing like ‘Christians believe’, “the statements on the website do not honestly reflect CEC’s viewpoint as it is expressed in the syllabuses”.
Hines says that the insistence on the part of the CEC that religious instruction is a pastoral programme like any other simply doesn’t stand up.
“They could do all of the things that they do in a hall down the road, and we would have no objections at all, of course we wouldn’t! They do it in school, I believe, to try to give the impression that the school is endorsing it. They repeatedly
say ‘these schools endorse our programme’. That’s a problem.”
All of this is a moot point, as far as religious instruction providers, and the schools that host them, are concerned: opt-out or opt-in, parents make the decision. So bickering over the terms of belief and observance within religious instruction classes is entirely irrelevant.
But the SEN says that if you’re removing kids from class you’re potentially creating a minority. Tanya Jacob has joined David Hines in the
cause for secularisation of state schools. She was compelled to do so, she says, after her children experienced first-hand what it means to be the ‘other’.
“We had our children at Harewood School in Christchurch, and we had them opted out of Bible in Schools there. The bullying happened for about three years.”
Jacob says that her children were repeatedly put back into religious instruction classes. Harewood School principal Julie Greenwood vigourously denies this claim.
But it wasn’t the fact that she believed her wishes had been ignored that made the whole thing a big deal for Tanya. It was the bullying she says her son was subjected to.
“My son was being harassed two or three times every week. ‘Why don’t you believe in God?’, ‘you’re going to hell’, and that sort of thing. My daughter was also being told that she should believe in God as well.”
Julie Greenwood says that, given the incidents happened some time ago, her recollection isn’t complete, but that the dispute has been blown out of proportion.
“There was a conversation between children, from what I understand, along the lines of ‘how come you’re not involved’, ‘you don’t believe in God’. They were certainly not bullying incidents. There were comments made that were were followed up, and were discussed with the children, and with the parents.”
Education Review asked the Ministry of Education to comment on the fact that there is concern among some parents that their wishes regarding religious instruction are being ignored, and that the classes themselves create fertile ground for bullying. Lisa Rodgers, Deputy Secretary for Early Learning and Student Achievement, responded.
“It’s very concerning if parents report their children are being bullied, whatever the cause… We provide guidelines to schools which have important information about preventing bullying.”
“Religious instruction was not covered by the Tomorrows Schools reforms so remained in the 1964 Act along with a number of other items that were not included. There are no plans to change any policy or legislative settings around religious instruction in schools.
“It’s voluntary for students to participate in religious instruction and parents can remove their child at any time. If parents are concerned that their wishes are not being taken into account, or would like to know more about what their child is doing while religious instruction is taking place, then they should talk to their child’s teacher, the school’s principal and the board of trustees.”
At the end of the day though, say Tanya Jacob and David Hines, regardless of whether the letter of the law is followed, it’s the law itself that needs to be looked at, if we truly believe in a modern, multi-cultural, multi-faith New Zealand society.
“If you think about it,” says Jacob, “I don’t think that many parents would drop their children off at the church across the road from the school and consider that part of the school day. Yet religious instruction, I believe, takes advantage of the school environment by using the assumptions that parents associate with schools to endorse and reinforce their message.
“And, of course, children assume that if there’s an adult at the front of the class that they’re a teacher, and that they’re going to say things that are true. I believe that providers of religious instruction are using schools in that way.
I don’t see that as a fair use of the system or of the term.”