Pupils may 'opt out' of religion

01:43, Jan 31 2009

Schools are set to receive guidelines on how to run religious education and ceremonies, paving the way for pupils to get out of any religious activity.

The Human Rights Commission, in conjunction with Victoria University, decided to draft the guidelines in light of the country's increasing religious and cultural diversity.

A draft will be released in March for discussion, but a working copy reveals schools could be told that forcing children to take part in religious ceremonies or classes may breach their rights.

Private schools will not be covered by any guidelines because, unlike state schools, they have no obligation to provide a secular education.

"Schools need to be sensitive about how their actions are likely to impact on students holding different beliefs," the paper said.

"Everyone's beliefs should be treated with respect and all views equally valued."

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The proposal has caused some bemusement among religions that run schools integrated into the state system. Secondary schools and integrated schools have slightly more flexibility, but would still have to allow students to "opt out".

Palmerston North Bishop Peter Cullinane said he had not seen the guidelines and was not aware of the Catholic Church making a submission to the commission.

He was not aware of any real issues with parents or students asking to be exempt from religious instruction at Catholic schools.

"The whole point of a Catholic school is to teach the Catholic faith," Bishop Cullinane said.

Wellington's Jewish Moriah School begins every day with half an hour of prayer.

Non-Jewish students are not required to attend the prayer sessions but if they choose not to go, they have to be at school doing other work.

"The point about integrated schools is that they have a special character," Wellington regional Jewish Council president David Zwartz said. "When people who are not Jewish send their children [to Moriah] they are happy to have their children take part," he said.

The guidelines arose out of a 2007 diversity action forum in Auckland, which highlighted a lack of clarity among both parents and schools toward the place of religion in education, Victoria University religious studies professor Paul Morris said.

"The idea of guidelines seems pretty simple ... because there aren't any.

"The Human Rights Commission wanted to ensure the right to religion and instruction doesn't contradict the Bill of Rights Act."

The Dominion Post