KwaZulu-Natal religious bodies have welcomed the South Gauteng High Court ruling against the promotion of one denomination over another at public schools.
Judge Willem van der Linde said in his ruling on Monday: “Neither a school governing body nor a public school may lawfully hold out that it subscribes to only a single particular religion to the exclusion of others.”
In May, the Organisation for Religious Education and Democracy brought an application to the high court asking it to rule against having one dominant religion observed at public schools.
The organisation, reported the African News Agency, brought the application against six schools: Laerskool Randhart, Laerskool Baanbreker, Laerskool Garsfontein, Hoërskool Linden, Hoërskool Oudtshoorn and Oudtshoorn Gimnasium, arguing that religious practices at these schools resulted in the suppression of scientific teachings of evolution, and a religious ethos that was a form of coercion and an abuse of pupils’ rights.
Van der Linde said public spaces were not “rarefied spaces” but public ones which needed to help to achieve “universal and non-discriminatory access to education”.
The judge also said the constitution demanded that provision for religious policies and observances needed to be conducted on a “free and voluntary, and equitable” basis.
“In this country, our diversity is celebrated, not tolerated.”
Van der Linde questioned if it would be acceptable if a public school, through rules laid down by the school governing body, held out that it was “exclusively a Jewish, or a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist, or an atheist, school”.
“Accepting a notional feeder community of 100% single religion parents, could it ever pass muster of the need for a national democratic respect for our country’s diverse cultural and religious traditions for that school to brand itself as adhering to that particular single faith to the exclusion of others?”
The national department of education said the ruling was consistent with its own policy, informed by the South African Schools Act and the constitution, that no one religion should be promoted above another.
“The aim is not to ban religious practices in schools but about protecting children and emphasising that schools should engage in religion education rather than religious instruction and not promote one religion over another,” said a spokesperson for the department.
Chairperson of the National Association of School Governing Bodies, Motsamai Lekata, said the organisation welcomed the “progressive” judgment.
He said today’s pupils would interact with a far “more pluralistic society” and that schools were the one place where different religions met.
“South Africa is one nation but its people believe in many gods. This, if implemented correctly, will teach our pupils tolerance, diversity, equality and justice,” Lekata said.
South African Muslim Network chairperson Dr Faisal Suliman said fostering a culture of inclusion should be a “natural, human inclination”.
“We are trying to build social cohesion. How do we do that? We try to understand each other: it starts here, at our schools. This will go a long way in eradicating extremism too.”
He praised the judgment for its values of mutual tolerance and acceptance.
Ashwin Trikamjee, president of the Hindu Maha Sabha, said that – especially 23 years after the advent of democracy – this kind of case should not be coming before the courts.
“We very often hear complaints from disgruntled parents about this exclusion. It should not be happening in this day and age.”
It was not the responsibility of schools to teach children about their faith, said chairperson for the Diakonia Council of Churches, the Reverend Ian Booth.
“This is for places of worship to do. We would support this judgment as it is in keeping with our constitution.”
The ChristianView Network did not approve of the ruling and said it confused the “constitutional affirmation of unity in diversity with the positive requirement of celebrating diversity”.
“In other words, tolerance of other religions does not imply a need to ‘celebrate’ multi-faith observances, with which most people of faith have a strong objection.”