It’s important for all of us – whether religious or not – to defend the secular viewpoint in public institutions, law and policy. For one, because secularism means that you will never be forced to attend or participate in the ceremonies or practices of religions other than your own.
Defenders of religious expression sometimes forget the fact that often, it’s only contingently the case that you’re defending the expression of a religion you happen to belong to, and that this coincidence can’t be guaranteed. If your neighbourhood school were over time to evolve into one of a different faith, you might suddenly wish for the school to be stubbornly secular.
A second reason to defend secularity, at least in my view, is because a secular environment is well suited to fostering free and rational choice and taking responsibility for our choices, as I argued in this column defending the rights of children to wear religious headgear at public schools. It’s clearer to see the relationship between our beliefs and our actions if we aren’t forced – not matter how implicitly – to perform certain actions.
Secular does not need to mean (in fact, ideally would not mean) hostility towards religious expression. It would mean neutrality, while allowing for the free expression of religious belief so long as that expression accorded with the Constitution and any other relevant law.
South Africa has a mostly superb framework ensuring secularism in our public schools. I’ve written about aspects of this before, but a recent email correspondence with a friend regarding the school her son attends offers an opportunity to highlight what I have reason to believe is a fairly common occurrence – namely, public schools ignoring the explicitly secular (but tolerant) National Policy on Religion in Education.
The case in point is Glenstantia Primary, which approved a new policy on religion in September 2012 (citing the Constitution, the National Policy on Religion and Education and other documents as references). Despite name-checking the National Policy, the “Governing Body of this school decided that Glenstantia Primary shall be a Christian based school” – which can’t avoid but create an impression of bias rather than neutrality towards not only religion, but more importantly, a specific religion.
Constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos has previously argued that statements like “this school has a Christian character” might well be contraventions of Section 15 of the Constitution, as well as the Schools Act, both of which allow for religious expression, but only on an “equitable basis”. As De Vos points out, our Constitutional Court has shied away from ruffling any feathers in judgements on this issue, partly because some wiggle-room is afforded them through the limitations clause.
However, if a group of parents were to ask the Department of Basic Education to account for its numerous failures to enforce the policy, I’d expect a similar outcome to the one achieved by Vashti McCollum in 1948, when the US Supreme Court agreed that calling religious observances “voluntary” could cover up a multitude of sins.
As the majority opinion in that case states, “both religion and government can best work to achieve their lofty aims if each is left free from the other within its respective sphere.” At Glenstantia, calling the school “Christian” already makes someone who believes in something else, or nothing, feels like an outsider. But the violations of the policy don’t stop there.
Clause 3.3 insists that the Bible is read at all “assemblies and school gatherings”, and then 3.4 insists that all pupils have to attend these events where hymns and sung and prayers said. You need not participate – but then you need a letter from your parents excusing you.
There are two clear problems in this: first that there’s nothing “equitable” about how religions are treated here, and second, a non-religious child in a religious family is either forced to lie (through participating in a charade) or forced into a very difficult confession of non-faith to a potentially hostile family.
In this sort of situation, who would blame the scholar for not simply taking the easy route, succumbing to peer, school and family pressure through pretending to be religious? For institutions like schools that are meant to teach the ability to think, be independent and so forth, this doesn’t seem a good start. Neither is it a good start in a life of Christian virtue, if you’re attracted to the faith via a subtle form of bullying.
The school has an obligation to support the National Policy on Religion in Education, rather than make pupils and parents jump through hoops to ensure that they are not discriminated against. Clause 3.5 says that “other persuasions will be respected”, but when “every school day begins with a prayer and/or a reading of a portion of the Bible” (3.6), it’s difficult to take that pledge of respect seriously.
There is more, but the point is by now clear – one can speak of tolerance and equitable treatment of religions (and the non-religious), but get away with nothing more than paying lip-service to that equitable treatment. This is not only the grouching of an atheist, but a concern that should be shared by every Muslim, or Jewish, or whatever, parent that has a child at a school like Glenstantia.
The point of secular provisions such as the national policy is that they protect us all from undue influence to toe a particular line, allowing for free expression of whatever beliefs you have, regardless of how fashionable, popular, or government-endorsed they are. We’re all free to believe what we like, and to engage in whatever religious practices we like – or not to, as the case may be.
Either way, it doesn’t have to be anyone else’s business other than yours. If you want to start and end your day with a prayer, go ahead. But why should doing so be forced on other people’s children, or made everyone (anyone) else’s business? DM