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Cape Town - The question of religion in schools has again reared its head after a pastor made a number of offensive remarks which left pupils traumatised.

Pickard Henn allegedly told learners at De Kuilen High School in Kuils River that "gay people were akin to murderers and paedophiles" and that young people who had sex before marriage were "prostitutes". Henn allegedly also said that “gay people were "as bad as Hitler", that babies are all born sinners and that sangomas were satanic. 

Speaking on Cape Talk on Tuesday, Henn denied making any remarks about the LGBTI+ community and insisted, said that he had permission to preach "the full Gospel".

On the question of whether public schools may invite religious speakers into schools - and what those speaker may or may not say - Michael Swain, the Executive Director of Freedom of Religion South Africa (FOR SA) said that "Section 15(2) of the Constitution allows ‘religious observances’ (including therefore religious sermons) at State or State-aided institutions (including therefore public schools), subject to three conditions. 

"The conditions are that the ‘religious observances’ must take place in terms of rules made by the appropriate public authorities (in the case of schools, the School Governing Body); they must take place on an equitable basis; and attendance must be free and voluntary. This right was also recently confirmed by the Johannesburg High Court in the case of OGOD v Laerskool Randhart & Others (2017)," he said. 

Swain went on to say that: "While public schools may not promote a particular religion, the law is clear that religious sermons are allowed at schools. That said, although religious speakers who are invited into schools have a right to express their religious convictions and beliefs, it is important that they do so in a manner that extends dignity and respect to all."

At what point then does a person cross the line between free speech (including religious speech) and "hate speech"? 

Swain says "the constitutional right to free speech is a very broad right that includes opinions and ideas that people do not like, do not agree with, or even find offensive. In recent cases, the Supreme Court of Appeal again stated that ‘the fact that a particular expression may be hurtful of people’s feelings, or wounding, distasteful, politically inflammatory or downright offensive, does not exclude it from [Constitutional] protection’. 

“However, in terms of section 16(c) of the Constitution, where speech amounts to the advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to cause harm, such speech will not be protected," he concluded.

Bronagh Hammond from the Western Cape Education Department said the department was aware of the matter and expressed concern that the pastor was allowed to address pupils for a second time after he had already made offensive comments at a Student Christian Association meeting at the school earlier that week.

"While schools cannot always manage everything that comes out of a guest’s mouth, it is important that schools engage with anyone speaking to learners prior to the event and ensure that their values, thoughts and messages are in line with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Any other message is not welcome in our schools," Hammond said.