Father faces dilemma over school's Bible classes
An Auckland father is taking his five-year-old son's school to the Human Rights Commission to try and put an end to classes he says are religious indoctrination.
The classes, provided by registered charity the Churches Education Commission (CEC), are offered through a loophole in the Education Act which allows nominally secular state schools to "close" once a week for half-an-hour and offer religious-based teaching.
Decile 8 St Heliers School holds classes for year 1 and 2 students every Thursday morning for three terms of the school year, one of around 700 state schools to take advantage of the free programme. Parents are free to withdraw their children from the classes.
But parent Roy Warren – a non-believer – says he shouldn't have to choose between exposing his child to "make-believe stories" and pulling him out of the class.
"You either remove your kid and they're ostracised essentially, alienated, made to look different to everybody else; or you have to sit through it and have your son go through something that you don't believe in as a family," says Mr Warren.
"That's a situation you shouldn't have to be put in. You should be able to bring up your kid and go to a state school and not have to worry about that."
Mr Warren has the backing of lobby group the Secular Education Network (SEN), which wants all religious teaching removed from state schools.
"They cover values like being helpful and so on, but they cover them all with this tag that God wants you to do this, and if you do this you will go to Heaven," says SEN public relations officer David Hines.
"Just about every lesson that they teach, the teacher's notebook says this is to teach the kids that God loves them. God is mentioned in almost every lesson, and this is what annoys people who aren't Christians – it's promoting God more than it's promoting anyone else."
"It's extremely arrogant to assume that people are Christian, or the values that they sell the programme on are based around Christianity," says Mr Warren.
"They're using the state-funded classroom environment – where real teaching takes place – to legitimise it, which is terrible."
But the CEC says it's open about the fact it teaches "Christian beliefs and Christian values", and says its curriculum is endorsed by the school boards.
"Personally I believe religion has a place in the state education system," says chief executive Simon Greening. "I think it's important that kids learn about religion and especially in the world in which we live now with multiple religious beliefs."
Mr Greening says it's up to each school to make sure children aren't discriminated against if they opt out of the classes.
According to a letter sent to St Heliers School parents in November, the CEC teaches values such as honesty, responsibility, diligence, self-discipline, respect and care. The CEC website says its volunteers are explicitly forbidden from evangelising or putting "pressure on children in any way shape or form to 'become Christians'".
Garry Ivill, chair of the school's board of trustees, says the school offers the programme because parents want it, and in his time on the board, there had been no complaints until now.
"It's been there for longer than anybody who's currently at the school can remember," he says.
"Every year the board of trustees decides whether to have it or not – the board of trustees tries to reflect the wishes of the community when it comes to this. This year we conducted a survey, because you can't get more specific than that, and a large majority supported it."
The survey was conducted online. When the board sent an email containing the link to parents, it was accompanied by information about the CEC programme, put together by the board.
The SEN says the email was misleading and designed to encourage parents to back the programme.
"It describes it as teaching Bible stories and values – it doesn't mention that a large portion of it is teaching people to pray," says Mr Hines.
But Mr Ivill says that information was provided only as "background".
"To suggest that parents are going to be swayed one way or the other based on background that's given, I think is unfair to the parents."
Despite its multicultural roll, very few children at St Heliers are withdrawn from the religious classes – Mr Warren estimated it was about 12, while Mr Ivill said it was a "very low percentage".
Mr Warren says it's because many parents – like him – don't want their kids to feel ostracised.
"When [my son] comes home, we give him the other side of the story so to speak, and balance things out," says Mr Warren.
"My wife and I have travelled all over the world, so we've seen you could say in our opinion, the results of what religion can do, and that's helped form our opinions on it. We give him stories about that sort of thing, and we talk about the real world – science and how that works, as opposed to what we would consider make-believe stories."
Last year Mr Warren offered to host a sports class for children who weren't attending the CEC programme, but was told by principal Craig McCarthny that wouldn't be necessary. He says he wasn't told why his offer was rebuffed.
Mr Warren and the school are going into mediation hosted by the Human Rights Commission later this month.