Religion in South African (public) schools verdict: a victory for OGOD

The verdict in the OGOD vs. 6 public schools case was handed down on June 28, with Judge van der Linde ruling that schools were not permitted to promote “one or predominantly one religion to the exclusion of others”.

In theory, then, the days of a school promoting themselves as having a “Christian character” should be over, with countless schools across the country now having to edit brochures, websites, and even coats of arms.

But as I argued in a previous post on this issue (and in columns prior to that, linked therein), there is still plenty of room in the details for devils – or angels – to exert their influence on what children are exposed to, or “protected” from exposure to.

As things stand, School Governing Boards (SGBs) exercise authority over the religious character of schools, even though – as the judgment has affirmed – they have been doing so in contravention of the Section 7 of the Schools Act, They are likely also in contravention of the National Policy on Religion and Education and 15(2) of the Constitution, though the judgment didn’t say this.

This does not mean that schools may no longer host religious observances, but it is going to put significant pressure on them to do so in such a way that is voluntary and equitable, in that all religions Рand non-religious perspectives Рshould be given equal airtime.

Furthermore, if the judgment isn’t challenged and overturned, it means that parents and pupils are no longer at the mercy of an SGBs interpretation of the Schools Act and other relevant laws.

If a case can be made that a child has been placed under pressure to conform to one or other religious perspective, or has found themselves missing out on otherwise valuable school activities through opting out thanks to a religious bias they don’t subscribe to, they now have a clear ruling in their favour that stipulates that such biases are unlawful.

The ruling will almost certainly be appealed, but that’s – in the long-run – a good thing. An appeal will mean that in the short-term, pupils and parents aren’t protected, but to my mind the judgment is so obviously correct (in law, regardless of ideology) that it cannot help but be affirmed (and hence become stronger) in higher courts.

Faced with the choice between having to make provision for all religions and non-religious views – regardless of whether any particular religious view is predominant in the community the school happens to serve – versus dropping religious activity entirely, it may well be that schools choose the latter, simpler option.

At least, this might be what they say they will do. Whether adopting secular practices is actually carried through into all classrooms, sporting events and school assemblies is another matter entirely.

The OGOD court papers, and countless news stories in the 20 or so years that I’ve been following these issues, offer numerous examples of teachers doing things like refusing to teach the evolution bits of the biology curriculum, or teaching regressive attitudes to sex and contraception because of a religious bias.

That sort of thing will continue to happen, and it’s up to pupils and parents to call schools out when they happen, while also ensuring that public events hosted by schools don’t perpetuate a religious bias.

Thanks to this ruling, holding schools to account has been made significantly easier, and both believers and non-believers should celebrate having one fewer domain of personal values being subject to State interference.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.