A Catholic school that has given parents "vote no" literature on cannabis and euthanasia has sparked a moral and legal row over whether schools should get involved in politics.
St Joseph's School in Stratford, Taranaki, has emailed all its parents attaching Family First literature listing 20 reasons to vote no to the upcoming referendums on both issues, and giving a link to the VoteSafe website opposing the proposed euthanasia law.
The email appears to breach Ministry of Education advice that state and state-integrated schools are state entities and "can't encourage electors to vote or not vote for specific parties, policies or candidates".
But Catholic Education Office chief executive Paul Ferris said school boards of trustees were "independent legal entities" and he had not provided any advice on how they should handle the referendums.
"A secondary school even has the legal power to make bylaws. That's how it can enforce uniform policies and things," he said.
Another Catholic school, St Paul's College in Ponsonby, sparked an outcry in July when it posted a message about the cannabis referendum on an electronic billboard outside its gate saying, "To legalise is to normalise. Vote No."
King's High School, a state school in Dunedin, also drew fire when its rector Nick McIvor posted a Facebook message last month saying he was worried about legalising cannabis.
Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis, author of the textbook Electoral Law in New Zealand, said the school board was a state agency and "there might still be a problem over whether the school's policies were compliant with the Public Service Commission's guidance on political neutrality".
In the Stratford case, St Joseph's principal Chris Linders sent parents the Family First "20 reasons to vote no" documents as attachments with a careful covering note saying: "Please find attached information to help you make an informed decision about the upcoming referendum. The www.votesafe.nz/quiz is also worth a go. It contains 10 questions and just takes a few minutes."
But one parent who complained to the Ministry of Education said the note was "misleading" because the information provided gave only one side of the arguments - against legalising both cannabis and euthanasia.
"I do understand that the Catholic Church has a position on the sanctity of life, and that I have chosen to send my children to a Catholic school," she said.
"The difference is that this is happening on the school side of the road. It's not that I'm not pro-life, I am, it's more that for me I differentiate between the school and the education sector and the Catholic Church."
Another parent said: "The school has my personal email address for school-related stuff, not for anything outside of the school."
Ministry of Education deputy secretary Katrina Casey said Catholic schools and other state-integrated schools are "Crown entities" just like state schools and are required to be politically neutral.
"You can display material encouraging staff and parents to vote, but you can't show political party information," she said.
"As a state agency, you need to be politically neutral and can't encourage electors to vote or not vote for specific parties, policies or candidates.
"To comply with Public Service Commission requirements, you must not allow billboards, posters, pamphlets and other political party advertising material at the school."
Ferris said the Catholic Education Office could not tell Catholic schools what to do, but he was not aware of any other Catholic schools that had sent parents partisan material about the referendums.
"Even the proprietors [the Catholic Church] would be very reluctant to try and press for a particular view to be proselytised to parents," he said.
An Electoral Commission spokeswoman said the commission's only role in the matter was to ensure "transparency about the promoter of material like this".
"In this instance, although the recommended form of promoter statement is not included, the name and address details in the email make it clear who it is from," she said.
Family First director Bob McCoskrie said the documents attached to the email came from a pamphlet that has been distributed to 300,000 people but has not been sent directly to any schools.
"We haven't targeted schools. It will just be coming on site through either parents or staff," he said.
He said Family First was spending more on the "trifecta" of this year's two referendums and general election than it has on any previous issue including the 2009 anti-smacking law and the 2013 same-sex marriage law.
He said spending by groups involved in the anti-smacking referendum was limited to $110,000, but the cap on spending for "third-party groups" this year was $338,000.
VoteSafe chair Henoch Kloosterboer said his group had also not sent any material to schools. He said the group had put up about 250 billboards and its spending would depend on how much it received in donations up to election day.
Hamilton Christian School principal Shaun Brooker, who chairs the Association of Christian Schools, said he would try to give his senior students all sides of the arguments.
"We haven't taken a stance as a school around the referendum. It's really the parents' duty to ensure that they are informed on decisions that they are making," he said.
Act MP David Seymour, who sponsored the End of Life Choice Bill that will be the subject of the euthanasia referendum, said it was inappropriate for schools "to get involved in a partisan way".