Secular Education Network appeals bible battle to UN committee
A group fighting against bible classes in primary schools is pushing for the United Nations to examine religious discrimination in New Zealand.
The Secular Education Network believes the classes have a negative impact on non-Christian students, and have no place in a secular education framework.
That is disputed by the Churches Education Commission - the largest provider of religious instruction in the country - which says that banning bible classes would be a breach of human rights.
The two groups represent opposing sides of a debate that has already wound up in court, and is presently being considered by the Human Rights Review Tribunal.
Now, the network wants the issue taken up by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
The committee will be reviewing New Zealand's human rights record next year, along with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the Human Rights Commission is currently collecting submissions.
Under the Education Act, teaching in primary schools must be entirely secular. However they're permitted to close for up to one hour a week, for the purpose of religious instruction.
Around 40 per cent of New Zealand primary schools engage in some form of religious instruction, while the rest are entirely secular.
Karl Le Quesne, head of early learning and student achievement at the Ministry of Education, says any religious programme must be approved by a school's board of trustees.
"Schools may not discriminate against their students on the grounds of their religious belief or lack of it," he said.
The network's David Hines is concerned that while that may be the law, the reality is that students still experience discrimination in the classroom.
"When kids don't attend the religious instruction class they, in many cases, get bullied by other kids," he said.
"That scares a lot of kids and their parents, so they don't complain about it."
The commission's Tracy Kirkley is disappointed by reports of students feeling ostracised, and insists that is not the intention of religious instruction.
"It's a concern if kids are feeling that way," she said.
"We're obviously concerned about that, and that's certainly something that we would not in any way encourage."
Kirkley believes banning religious instruction would be a step in the wrong direction, and said the commission will make its own submission to the UN committee.
"To us it's about maintaining and protecting the freedoms we enjoy in this country," she said.
"There are mechanisms for people to choose whether their kids are in programmes, that's the whole point of a democracy."
But scrapping religious instruction entirely is exactly what Hines would like to see, especially given the changing demographics of New Zealand.
"If the present slide goes on, the non-religious people could well outnumber the number of Christians by the next census," he said.
Kirkley concedes his point, and acknowledges that requests for religious instruction classes have dropped over the past few years.
"The face of New Zealand society has become a lot more diverse and multicultural, we totally understand that," she said.
However Kirkley said the commission will continue offering religious instruction as long as there is demand from schools.
Submissions to the UN committee close in August 2017.
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