State schools will soon receive a new set of guidelines on religion, including a warning that prayers or Christian karakia in primary schools are illegal in most circumstances.
Education Ministry officials today briefed parliament's education and science committee on the new guidelines that will go out to schools in the next two months.
The advice reiterates that religious education and observance are illegal in primary schools' normal hours under the 1964 Education Act.
Since 1877 such activities have only been allowed on a voluntary basis and when normal classes are closed.
Education Ministry senior manager Martin Connelly said the new guidelines clarified schools' legal obligations under the Education and Bill of Rights Acts and proposed a change so students no longer had to be formally excused from religious activities.
The guideline would advise schools that:
* "Whole of school" religious activities, for example at assemblies, should be avoided as they may put indirect pressure on pupils to participate.
* Religious instruction and observances should be provided by voluntary instructors rather than staff.
* Activities should only be provided in a separate voluntary class before school, at lunchtime, after school, or during a period assigned for optional activities.
Mr Connelly said the advice meant Christian prayers and Christian-based karakia should also be avoided at state primary school assemblies. Karakia of a more general nature were permitted.
The ministry was unsure how widespread illegal religious activities were, but its guidelines were in response to a "modest stream" of complaints, he said.
A briefing paper presented to MPs said overtly religious karakia were allowed in kura kaupapa as long as parents were advised they were part of the institution's special character.
This was because they were inextricably intertwined with Maori culture and custom.
It was also accepted that the teaching of Maori culture to other primary students could also have an element of religion as long as parents were warned in advance.
The guidelines also propose a change in how consent for religious activities is sought from parents.
Mr Connelly said under the Bill of Rights Act the practice of requiring students to "opt out" of religious activities could be seen as discriminatory.
Instead the ministry was proposing schools required students who wanted to participate to "opt in" -- similar to other voluntary activities such as school bands or sports teams.
"What we are suggesting is that the opt-in is likely to be fairer to people who might be humiliated by having to stand up and walk out," he said.
Under questioning from MPs Mr Connelly stressed the guidelines were merely advice. Schools were still free to make their own decisions.
However the guidelines aimed to help schools avoid time-consuming complaints to bodies such as the Human Rights Commission.
National MP Allan Peachey questioned whether the guidelines would make it too difficult for schools to carry on with religious activities.
Mr Connelly said he believed such activities would continue where there was an appetite.
- NZPABy Grant Fleming