In the most recent Census, almost a third of New Zealanders said they had "no religion". As might be expected in an increasingly diverse society, far more people also aligned themselves to non-Christian religions, notably Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.
It is, therefore, somewhat unsurprising that there is increasing tension about the teaching of the Bible in state schools.
In Auckland, this has manifested itself in at least three primary schools dropping the Bible in Schools programme in the past three years after many pupils opted out and persuaded their friends to follow.
For many, this situation will come as a surprise. They will have been accustomed to children being taught Christian values and the Bible at Sunday schools. Or have expected parents who wanted religious teaching for their children to have sent them to a private Christian school.
The 1964 Education Act says, however, that while state primary schools do not have to provide religious instruction or observance, they are permitted to do so under certain conditions if desired by their boards of trustees.
A school can close for up to one hour a week, up to a total of 30 hours a year, for this purpose in a manner approved by the board. Typically, the instruction occurs before or after school or during the lunch break.
The same act, however, also dictates that children must be allowed to opt out freely if their parents do not want them to participate in religious ceremonies or teaching. This has created practical problems for the likes of Browns Bay School because the legislation also says that schools must cater for these pupils.
This means they need to ensure that appropriate supervision and instruction is provided when the school is closed for religious purposes. Last year, about 50 pupils dropped out of the Bible in Schools programme from a roll of 500.
This year, even more have persuaded their parents to withdraw. For Browns Bay, the problem of providing for the safety of these children simply became too much.
Situations like this have, understandably enough, perturbed those who value the programme and those who supply it. Robin Palmer, of the Browns Bay Presbyterian Church, said he was concerned that children whose schools did not use Bible in Schools would be at a disadvantage.
"We regard the programme as adding value to the school, and it's been around for years," he said. Many would agree, but a changing society creates changing priorities.
One of these must be the increasing number of pupils opting out. It is important that they do not feel isolated or stigmatised. Schools have a duty of care under the Human Rights Act to ensure they do not discriminate against their pupils on the grounds of religious belief or lack of it.
In this context, it could be argued that the rights of children from non-religious families or those of a different faith are infringed by the mere provision of Bible in Schools and other such programmes.
That, however, would be a step too far. This religious observance takes place outside normal school hours. Therefore, pupils who withdraw do not miss out on any of the normal secular teaching that is guaranteed under section 77 of the Education Act.
It seems apparent that our changing society means religious instruction and observance will continue to dwindle. And that the view of Browns Bay principal Roger Harnett will have increasing currency.
"Parents have ample opportunity to teach children about the Bible outside school time," he says. So, too, do churches. That used to be the case. The increasing number of primary schools opting out of teaching the Bible suggests it should be so again.
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