Despite a high court ruling against the practice, parents complain that Christian religious indoctrination remains a problem at schools, with especially Afrikaans schools making themselves guilty of the practice.
Being a non-Christian parent is a continuous battle for constitutional religious freedom at South African public schools.
According to several parents, who have complained through various channels about their children being exposed to the exclusive promotion of Christian doctrine, remains a problem despite the South Gauteng High Court ruling three years ago against Gauteng public schools ordering them to align their policies on religion with the constitution which did not allow the exclusive promotion of a religion at public schools.
The Gauteng education department has since instructed all schools to align their policies with this order, but decades of school tradition in a predominantly Christian society meant parents were often forced to opt their children out of religious activities at school, isolating them from the crowd and risking bullying and ostracism from their peers.
Louis* a parent of a child in Laerskool Menlopark, Pretoria East, said he complained to the school after realising that in his case, children were forced to either take part in religious activities or opt out after the fact, meaning the child would be singled out for not being a Christian.
The issue was highly prevalent in Afrikaans communities, where Christianity was a core part of the culture and character of school life. School assemblies and most formal activities were punctuated by opening and closing prayers, the singing of hymns and the reading and teaching of Bible scripture.
“I suppose being an Afrikaans school, they are also very much connected to the NG Kerk and to the absolute exclusion of every other religion. Late last year, all of the children went to a thanksgiving function at a local church without an option of not participating. Christianity is basically integrated into the day to day activities of the school starting with the first class where they have a morning prayer before they start,” the concerned father said.
Another parent at Hoërskool Waterkloof, also in Pretoria East, claimed they were told that barring pulling her children out from the numerous school activities which promoted Christianity one by one, there was virtually nothing she could do, after numerous engagements with the school.
An application form for the school seen by The Citizen clearly stipulates that a parent had to underwrite Christianity and the Bible as the “word of God”.
“I think it is unconstitutional for a public school to have that as an entrance requirement. It is also one of the main reasons that I did not confront them earlier – I thought I signed my rights away.”
Despite the school openly promoting Christianity as a pillar of its mission and vision, the school’s head of marketing, Annete Grobbelaar said the school was compliant with the constitution when it came to promoting religion at a public school.
Parents often were afraid to speak out for fear of being ostracised themselves in the community, or their children facing bullying and isolation at schools.
Organisations such as the South African Secular Society (SSAS) and OGOD, an NGO which fights for religious freedom were often the last resort parents turned to when the education system failed to hear their pleas.
According to the SASS President, Rick Raubenheimer, religious instruction was entrenched in long-standing traditions of many of the older public schools in South Africa, and introducing the idea of schools as secular environments where all religions were treated equally had yet to be welcomed by institutions.
“It is still very prevalent, specifically in the Afrikaans public schools. This is demonstrated by various schools through their ethos, code of conduct, and documentations. Moreover by their practicing of activities such as prayers and scripture readings during assembly, and many having a dedicated scripture reading in class. Also group prayers for events, such as sport events and team sports are a common occurrence.
“The “opt-out” option generally makes provision by isolating the learners by sitting in a supervision class or in school office while religious activities take place. Although some schools do make it known that participation is voluntary, the implementation or handling of the matter leaves room for much improvement.”
According to the The National Education Policy, the state supported “religion education” in public schools, but “religious instruction” was not allowed.
“Religion education” refers to children being taught objectively about all belief systems without favouring any of them.
Raubenheimer warned that the risks of public schools being seen as biased toward a single religion was that it bred intolerance in young children.
“We are a diverse society. As the children grow up, they will encounter people of many beliefs. Understanding them will lead to a more harmonious society. On the other hand, inculcation into a specific belief, with the idea that only it is the “true faith” and all other are evil and wrong, will lead to conflict.”
Last year a parent of a child from Laerskool Randhart won a battle against the school to have it revise its religious policy in accordance with the South Gauteng High Court judgement. Parent Warren Deerans said his success had inspired a number of parents in mostly Pretoria schools where little had changed following the court judgement.
A running theme with most parents who spoke to The Citizen was that it was unfair to expect a parent to have to opt out of religious activities organised by the school. The South Gauteng High Court supported the view that such activities should be organised on an ‘opt-in’ basis where learners chose whether to attend not whether to pull out of the event.
Civil rights group Afriforum said it felt public schools should be given the opportunity to practice religion, but that one belief should not be promoted above another.
“Public schools that follow a Christian policy may not turn children away that believe in a different religion,” said Carien Bloem, the group’s head of education.
“Parents from different religions are aware in advance that they are putting their children in schools that practice a belief that is contrary to their faith. In such circumstances provision is made at schools to accommodate children of other faiths as well. Christian activities at public schools are voluntary and no one should be forced to participate in any religious practice,” she said.
“However, this is not the answer to making schools more secular and taking religion out of schools. It has a very important place in schools. Religious practice in public schools should be managed properly and handled with due respect and sensitivity.”
Gauteng DA spokesperson for education Khumo Ramulifho was in agreement with that sentiment saying many schools, from the townships to the suburbs had some form of faith-based culture and as long as the constitution was respected, there was no need to take Christianity out of public schools.
OGOD’s founder Hans Pieterson said since the 2017 ruling, the group still received numerous complaints from parents who said the law was still being flouted by public schools.
“Ogod still receives complaints monthly of public schools illegally forcing religion onto learners during school activities. This is a flagrant disregard of the High Court judgement,” said Pieterson.
“This is simply no longer in dispute. the Schools Act and Constitution dictate that any participation in religious activities, by staff or pupils at public schools, must be on an opt-in basis, and that all religions–and irreligion–must be treated and accommodated equally. There is no requirement to justify this demand; it is law.”
The main reason schools were inert on this issue was the influence of religious community leaders and lack of political will, even within government and the individual schools to change the status quo.
“Principals often deflect by unnecessarily involving the governing bodies, and stall by taking weeks or even months to respond to parents’ legitimate queries.”
Pietersen described it as “a game of hide the law and seek Jesus.”
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