A challenge of certain Christian-only religious practices in South African public schools will be heard in a court case in the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg next week (15-17 May 2017).
The Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC) is an amicus curiae in the matter initiated by an organisation called the Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie. (“OGOD”), and is represented by SECTION27.
The Respondents in the matter are six public schools. The Minister for Basic Education and the Minister of Justice and Correctional services have also been cited as Respondents in this matter.
OGOD has challenged the Christian-only religious practices at the Respondent Schools on the basis that these practices are a violation of the Constitution and the National Policy on Religion and Education (the “National Religion Policy”).
These practices include:
- Adopting a Christian ethos at the Respondent schools
- Engaging in collective Christian-only religious observances such as scripture reading, prayer, hymn singing in assembly
- Utilising religious symbolism such as decorating the school walls with Bible verses
- Engaging in religious instruction such as Bible study as a non-promotional subject
- The formation of Christian Associations in the schools
OGOD alleges that the practices at the Respondent schools directly or indirectly coerce learners to participate in them and as such violate the rights of learners, including their rights to equality, human dignity, freedom and security of person and freedom of religion.
In response to OGOD, the Respondent schools - in an affidavit deposed to by the CEO of the Federation of Governing Bodies (FEDSAS) - challenge the constitutionality of the National Religion Policy. They argue that the Policy prohibits specific single religion practices “within largely homogenously religious schools”.
CASAC is of the view that the National Religion Policy affirms and aims to promote the values of diversity, dignity, equality and freedom enshrined within the Constitution.
The Policy, published in 2003, recognises the “rich and diverse religious heritage of our country and adopts a co-operative model that seeks to promote the creative interaction between schools and faith, whilst protecting our young people from religious discrimination or coercion”. It therefore requires “that opportunities be afforded in an equitable manner to all religious bodies represented in a school, that no denigration or caricaturing of any other religion take place, and that attendance at such instruction be voluntary.”
CASAC’s intervention therefore aims to advance the position that National Religion Policy is consistent with the values in the Constitution. It also aims to support the view that certain practices at the Respondent schools are inconsistent with the National Religion Policy and the Constitution as these are tantamount to the state endorsement of a particular religion in a public school.
At the core of CASAC’s intervention is the well-established principle in the South African Constitutional Court’s jurisprudence beginning in the case of Head of Department: Mpumulanga Department of Education and Another v Hoerskool Ermelo (Ermelo) which is that public schools are a public resource and must be managed not only in the interests of the learners and parents at the school ‘but also in the interests of the broader community on which the school is located and in light of the values of our Constitution.’
A copy of CASAC’s heads of argument is available here
Issued by SECTION27