SIX SOUTH AFRICAN SCHOOLS TAKEN TO COURT FOR CHRISTIAN PRACTICES?
An email circulating on Christian networks reports that six schools in Gauteng and the Western Cape will appear in the Supreme Court in Johannesburg on charges of practicing Christianity.
One version of the email reads as follows:
“Stand up! Stand up for Jesus!
On 28 November, 6 schools in Gauteng and Western Cape will appear in the Supreme Court in Johannesburg on charges of practicing Christian faith in schools. Christian attorneys will be representing them. It is expected that this case will be referred to the Constitutional Court. The enemy has stolen enough. Please pray for the attorneys and judge to be guided through Godly intervention and wisdom. Our country is falling to pieces while Christians look on in silence while sangomas throw bones during opening of Parliament to eliminate God-fearing principles out of our schools. Come on Christians, let us stand together in prayer to withstand this force of darkness that wants to destroy our country. May God meet with President Zuma to completely turn his life around. Do not take this request up lightly as the freedom of our Christian faith is at stake. Please could you forward this message to as many fellow Christians as you can to crumble down this wall of resistance. Amen!”
TRUE OR FALSE?
The email is true in the sense that six schools will appear in the Supreme Court in Johannesburg, BUT the emails incorrectly report that the charges relate to the practicing of Christian faith. The application filed in the Gauteng High Court concerns prohibiting the six public schools from advertising themselves as exclusively “Christian” or as having a “Christian ethos”.
16 OCTOBER 2015 UPDATE
The following update was received on 16 October by Jericho Walls (www.jwipn.com) on behalf of an advocate working with FORSA on the case. The report reads as follows:
“The case regarding the six schools in discussion will not be heard now. A lot still needs to happen in the case before it will be ready for court. At this stage the “Amici Curiae” (“Friends of the Court”) still need to submit their applications to add to the hearing. After receiving the applications the respective parties also need to submit their written arguments and only then will the case be ready to be heard. No date has been set yet for the court hearing to proceed and only time will tell when it will be ready. The likelihood is that the court hearing will only take place in the second half of 2016
The dates mentioned in the WhatsApp’s, SMS’s and emails are only “case management meetings” – routine appearances before the court to sort out the administration of the case. This will determine the steps to follow and for the court not to waste unnecessary time, etc”
Let us continue to pray, both for the accused and for the accusers.
In August 2014, an application concerning the schools was launched at the Gauteng High Court by an NGO called OGOD (‘Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie’, or ‘Organisation for Religious Education and Democracy’).
Hans Pietersen, OGOD chairperson, said the organisation was bringing the application on behalf of learners and parents at public schools in South Africa. It is the first time that a formal legal challenge of this nature has been brought. The six schools have 20 days to respond to OGOD’s challenge.
Two of the schools, Langenhoven Gimnasium and Hoërskool Oudtshoorn, responding to a report in the Afrikaans daily Die Burger, vehemently dismissed the charges. “Our school is known for our moral and disciplinary values, but we obey the law. Yes, we pray before rugby matches, but if someone doesn’t want to pray, we will accept it,” said Christo van der Bergh, chairperson of the Langenhoven Gimnasium school governing body.
A spokesperson for the Hoërskool Oudtshoorn governing body, Dr Jaco Jordaan, charged that the court action was “an attack on the ethos of every public school” and understood the application to mean that “all religion will be banned from schools… it is unreasonable”.
But setting out the legal framework of the case, Pietersen explained that South Africa’s National Policy on Religion and Education (published in 2003) recognised “the rich and diverse religious heritage of our country and adopted a co-operative model that accepted the possibility of creative interaction between schools and faith, whilst protecting our young people from religious discrimination or coercion”. “This diversity,” he added, “should be evident in public schools where no particular religious ethos should be dominant over and suppress others.”
The policy could be interpreted, said Pietersen, as neither negative nor hostile towards any religion or faith and did not discriminate against anyone. “Rather it displayed a profound respect towards religious faith and affirmed the importance of the study of religion and religious observances.” In this light, OGOD has accordingly targeted six Afrikaans-medium schools that all advertise themselves as being exclusively Christian and which engage in activities, teachings and practices that, according to Pietersen, violate the constitution of the country.
The six schools are Laerskool Randhart in Alberton, Laerskool Baanbreker in Boksburg, Laerskool Garsfontein in Pretoria, Hoërskool Linden in Johannesburg, Hoërskool Outshoorn and Langenhoven Gimnasium.
Dr Jaco Deacon, Deputy CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (FEDSAS), told the Daily Maverick that the federation was consulting member schools as to whether it would oppose the application. However, he was of the opinion that the matter would not be settled in the High Court and would be referred to the Constitutional Court. Deacon said that the matter could have “huge implications” for the teaching of religion in public schools and how it is viewed. While it would not affect religious instruction as a school subject, it would have repercussions for the ethos or mission statements of schools.
WHAT DOES THE CONSTITUTION GUARANTEE?
The right to freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution of South Africa as follows:
- Chapter 2 of the Constitution of South Africa, containing the Bill of Rights, states that everyone has the right to freedom of religion, belief and opinion.
- Section 9, the equality clause, prohibits unfair discrimination on various grounds including religion.
- Section 15 allows religious observances in state and state-aided institutions, provided they follow public authority rules, they are conducted on an equitable basis and attendance is free and voluntary, and also provides for the recognition of religious legal systems and marriages that are not inconsistent with the Constitution.
- Section 31 protects the right of persons belonging to a religious community to practise their religion together with other members of that community and form voluntary religious associations.
Various other provisions of the Constitution relate to religion and religious freedom.
- Sections 185 and 186 provide for a commission for the promotion and protection of the rights of cultural, religious and linguistic communities.
- In addition, human rights such as the right to human dignity, the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of association relate indirectly to the protection of religious freedom.
According to Pierre De Vos, teacher of Constitutional law at the University of Cape Town Law Faculty, these rights should be applied as follows:
- In South Africa, the religious views of the majority cannot extinguish the rights to religious freedom of a minority.
- Religious observance at schools (both in individual classes and during mass events like assembly) should be completely voluntary and various beliefs should be treated equitably in the school.
- The South African Constitution does not demand a complete separation between religion and the state. Unlike in the United States, where the US Supreme Court claims that religious freedom requires a “wall of separation between church and state”, the South African Constitution recognises a limited but significant role for religion in state institutions.
- Section 15(1) of the Constitution (containing an expansive right protecting not only religious freedom, but also the freedom of conscience, thought, belief and opinion of everyone) means that section 15(1) equally protects the rights of those who are religious to hold their religious beliefs, to state such beliefs and to practice their religion as well as protecting the rights of atheists to hold their beliefs, to state that they do not believe in God and to arrange their lives accordingly.
- Section 15(2) of the Constitution explicitly rejects the notion that there should be a complete wall of separation between the state and religion, and thus accepts that: “[r]eligious observances may be conducted at state or state-aided institutions, provided that (a) those observances follow rules made by the appropriate public authorities; (b) they are conducted on an equitable basis; and (c) attendance at them is free and voluntary.”
Vosloo observes that two important consequences flow from the legal regime in place in South Africa for the protection of freedom of religion and conscience:
First, it is illegal for a state school to directly or indirectly coerce learners into observing a specific religion or any form of religion, either at public events such as assembly or in individual classrooms. Where a school observes religion at public events, it needs to provide a clear alternative for children who wish not to participate. This alternative cannot be presented in such a manner that it indirectly places pressure on a vulnerable child sensitive to peer pressure to attend the religious observance. Where it observes religion in classes or wishes to embody teaching with “Christian values”, it would have to provide two streams of education in the form of different classes – one class catering for teaching that accords with the Christian ethos and one class completely free from such views and values. A school that openly promotes a Christian ethos and provides no clear and equitable alternative is acting unconstitutionally and illegally.
Second, even where a school has rules in place to ensure that children are neither directly nor indirectly coerced into observing religion at public events or in classes, it would still have a duty to treat various forms of belief equitably. This does not mean such beliefs have to be treated in exactly the same manner, but it does mean that schools are prohibited from exclusively advancing the beliefs or teaching of one specific religion.
HOW SHOULD CHRISTIANS RESPOND?
Even though the attitude of the six schools and their determination to stick to a ‘Christian ethos’ is admirable and worthy of praise, the argument against Christian ‘elitism’ in public schools should also be heard and understood in order for Christians to remain relevant and welcome in the South African context.
Many Christians will agree that Islamic schools in the Muslim world – that force Islamic instruction on Muslim and non-Muslim children alike – are unacceptably oppressive. In such contexts, minority Christians suffer severely under the ‘elitism’ of the majority and often have to endure pressure, ridicule and violence for refusing to submit to the teachings of the majority.
In the Western context, Christians should not view Christian education as a right but as a privilege, and as a platform of serving others like Christ did – unconditionally. In South Africa, Christians are the majority and need to understand the fears and concerns of those who may feel victimised simply because they are a minority.
Yes, there should be fervent prayer for schools and for Christian teachers who have the opportunity to ‘model Christ’. Christians are unquestionably called to proclaim the Gospel boldly and whenever the opportunity arises, but this needs to be done with respect for the constitution. There should also be fervent prayer for South Africa’s leaders and the government with hearts of anguish and not of condemnation.
Another key means of response can be learnt from the Church in China. In recent months, the government has carried out a campaign to tear down crosses outside churches, and instead of responding in anger or despair, some Christians decided to produce small crosses to display in their cars as well as in/outside their homes. The principle that can be applied to the South African context is this: that where government restrictions concerning religion must be respected, the family can ‘multiply’ their Christian instruction, influence and testimony within their personal lives and communities.