The issue of religion in schools is a current hot potato but it was admirably explored in the Human Rights Commission (HRC) 2009 document "Religion in New Zealand Schools: Questions and Concerns" which acknowledged that religion in schools is regularly the subject of complaints to both the HRC and the New Zealand School Trustees Association. "These enquiries and complaints range from whether hot cross buns are allowed in schools or how schools celebrate Easter, to the question of whether children from non-religious families are discriminated against by the provision of religious instruction."

Of course there's an important difference between religious instruction and religious education. Religious instruction focuses on presenting one particular religion as gospel. Religious instruction is not subtle; it is blatantly seeking adherents to the faith, intent on recruiting new members of the congregation. But surely endorsing one particular religion is not an appropriate role for our state schools. Oughtn't the task of spreading the good word and grooming potential worshippers lie with churches and families rather than supposedly secular state learning institutions?

On the other hand, religious education, also known as religious studies, involves academic study of the major world religions. Slotting into the curriculum somewhere between history, social studies and cultural studies, it seems a natural and appropriate way of educating students about a raft of faiths such as Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam - and perhaps atheism.

Then there's religious observance which might entail, for example, the recitation of prayers or singing of hymns. In such circumstances the protocol is that students are able to opt out of participating. Yet this in itself is a separatist policy. A "them and us' divide, at odds with the easy acceptance of differences as demanded by an increasingly diverse society, is almost certain to develop - just as it did at my alma mater, Hastings Girls' High School, where the Brethren girls self-consciously filed in to the assembly hall once the rest of us had mumbled the Lord's Prayer.


New Zealand is a signatory to international human rights conventions that "guarantee the freedom of religion, conscience and belief and freedom from religious discrimination and coercion" but any narrowly-focused religious indoctrination of children in schools would seem to be in direct contravention of this principle.

Further, the HRC's report on religion states that: "A secular education should not favour any one particular religious belief." Yet religious observance and religious instruction in schools do sometimes endorse one particular religion, usually Christianity, to the exclusion of others - and this surely is unacceptable in light of New Zealanders' religious affiliations as revealed in the 2006 Census: the percentage of Christians is in decline, a third of us have no religion - and, thanks mainly to new migrants, faiths such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam are showing strong growth.

Does religion belong in state schools? What's acceptable to you: religious education, religious instruction, religious observance - or all of the above? What is the place of Christianity in schools that exist within a culturally and spiritually diverse society?
Debate on this article is now closed.