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Human Rights Commission’s position on religion in schools

Human Rights Commission’s position on religion in schools

The Human Rights Commission’s position on religion in schools is set out in its 2008 booklet, Religion in Schools. The booklet only applies to state primary schools.

Private schools and integrated schools are not required to provide a secular education. Teaching also does not have to be explicitly secular in state secondary schools as Boards of Trustees have some flexibility about how they choose to provide religious instruction. Any observance must be provided in a non-discriminatory way and pupils need to be able to opt out.

The position in relation to primary schools is set out in the Education Act 1964:

• Under s.77 education must be secular during school hours;
• Section 78 allows schools to close for an hour a week for religious observance or instruction. (A school is considered to be “closed” outside of normal teaching hours and at lunchtime);
• Section 79 allows children to opt out if their parents do not wish them to participate.

Because the Bill of Rights applies, it moderates (but does not override) the Education Act. So pupils must not be discriminated against if they choose (or chose not) to participate in religious observance or in how they manifest their belief (for example, wearing an item such as a headscarf or Magen David could be considered justified in a secular school).

In allowing students to opt out, a school must ensure that they are treated with dignity and arrangements made to ensure that the students are supervised and safe during the period they are not with the other students.

Providing a secular education does not mean that schools cannot teach about religion. What the Act proscribes is teaching about a belief in a way that encourages adherence to a belief. The distinction is between studying what people believe and teaching a student what to believe.

There is no requirement that religious instruction should be Christian. Although in practice most of the instruction is offered by an organisation called Bible in Schools which is Christian, schools should consider any offer to provide instruction on a non-discriminatory basis.

A school may also choose to celebrate cultural or religious events provided it is not done in a discriminatory way and again reasonable options are available for those who do not wish to participate.


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