The Ministry of Education, about seven years ago, considered sending schools new guidelines on religion, including a warning that prayers or Christian karakia in primary schools are illegal in most circumstances. Religious education and observance are illegal in primary schools' normal hours under the 1964 Education Act. The new guidelines aimed to clarify schools' legal obligations under that legislation and the Bill of Rights Act, and proposed a change so students no longer had to be formally excused from religious activities.
OPINION: Those plans were scrapped after principals, bishops and Opposition MPs criticised them as unworkable and unnecessary. The issue of religion in schools is vexing and complex.
The Education Act requires all teaching in state primary schools to be secular. Religious observance can take place only when a school is closed and not during times in which the Education Ministry has a responsibility.
Students must be able to opt out of anything smacking of religion.
But American and Canadian case law suggests that holding prayers in a school environment can amount to coercion and any implicit pressure felt by students to take part will not necessarily be offset by a right to opt out.
These matters may need reviewing at Auckland's Kelston Intermediate School, where some concerned teachers called in their union in protest against being asked to lead the reciting of a Maori prayer before daily lessons begin.
The staff concerns are understandable. First, according to Human Rights Commission guidance, they can lead prayers or other religious observances in a state school only if they avoid implying that the school endorses or requires compliance with the religious content. Second, the teachers' influence may be factors that heighten a student's sense of being coerced to join in religious observances such as prayers or karakia. School principal Phil Gordon apparently had no idea about staff discontent until contacted by the union.
He regards the karakia as a cultural component of school life and an expression of beliefs that reflect the Kelston community. He reportedly told the union "what we're doing is not a religious thing but a cultural thing".
But a prayer is a prayer, whatever culture.