Lawmakers urged to stop the 'evangelising of children' in New Zealand schools

New legislation proposes that religious instruction be on an 'opt-in' basis in state schools, but a member of the Secular Education Network wants religious instruction removed from schools altogether.

The Secular Education Network's Toby Cooper told lawmakers on Wednesday the Government must stop the "evangelising of children" in state schools in New Zealand because they are supposed to be secular. 

Cooper said children are being "segregated" in schools on the basis of their parents' beliefs, telling MPs the result is "bullying and ostracising of one group or another" causing "distress" as a result of a "derisive process". 

"Although changing the opt-out system to an opt-in system is a very good improvement, it will not stop the segregation from taking place. Nor will it justify or even consider why we would allow the evangelising of children at a secular state school."

Cooper said many parents are unaware their child's school has a religious instruction programme and that some parents have been forced to repeatedly opt their child out because the school defaulted to inclusion at the beginning of every term.

The Education and Training Bill introduced to Parliament in December proposes that "religious instruction by schools will change from an opt-out to an opt-in process". 

It is not currently compulsory for students to attend religious instruction or observances held by their school, but if parents or guardians do not want their children to attend, they must inform the school principal of this in writing. 

The Bill notes how this has "resulted in some children being placed in religious instruction sessions without the full and informed consent of parents and caregivers who may not have been aware of the religious instruction sessions occurring". 

The legislation says, "The Bill will address this by requiring schools that provide religious instruction to operate an opt-in process. Schools can continue to operate an opt-out process for religious observances."

Cooper said, "I applaud the apparent intent behind the question of religious instruction in secular state schools... my feeling, however, is that the Bill does not go far enough to correct the current situation which is hugely problematic."

Cooper took issue with the legislation's proposal that schools may provide additional religious instruction to students if the majority of parents of students at the school agree and if it doesn't affect the rest of the curriculum. 

The Secular Education Network's Toby Cooper speaking to lawmakers in Parliament.
The Secular Education Network's Toby Cooper speaking to lawmakers in Parliament. Photo credit: Newshub

"This suggests that a mere majority of a community be allowed by law to actively segregate vulnerable children on the basis of religious belief," Cooper told lawmakers. 

"Is there any other criteria on which we would be happy for this to happen? Colour? Gender? Truly, this is extraordinary."

National MP Simeon Brown said he had "heard reports" that the Secular Education Network "lobbied parents" outside schools at times when boards of trustees make decisions around whether religious instruction should be provided at schools.

"To some extent, you're harassing so will you continue to practice that after this Bill has passed?" Brown asked Cooper. 

"I wouldn't characterise it as lobbying," Cooper replied. "What we have done - and I've been involved on several occasions - is hand out information fliers complete with website resources and things like that to parents."

The Auckland High Court will hear the case against school-based religious instruction in October 2020, over the Secular Education Network's appeal for a ruling that these classes are contrary to the Bill of Rights Act.