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State schools should advance religious tolerance

4 September 2006

State schools should be advancing religious tolerance

Green MP Keith Locke has concerns that Christian prayers in state school assemblies do not take account of the greater diversity in religious belief that is evident among New Zealanders today.

Mr Locke, the Green Party's Human Rights Spokesperson, was responding to the decision to ditch the proposed guidelines for teaching religion in state schools, that would have required parents to give their written consent before their children could take part in religious instruction or events.

"The reality is that fewer New Zealanders now identify with the Christian faith, and are either becoming more diverse in the faith they profess, or are choosing not to profess any faith at all," Mr Locke says.

"Significant numbers of students come from families that either have no religion, or have another religion. Between 1991 and 2002 there was a threefold increase in the numbers of those professing Islam, while the numbers of New Zealand residents professing the Hindu faith doubled. Simultaneously, there has been a huge increase in those professing no faith at all, a category that encompassed some 30 percent of the 2001 census population.

"Though still accounting for nearly 60 % of the census population, the numbers of those professing the Christian faith actually fell between the 1991 census and the 2001 census," Mr Locke says.

"It is demeaning for students from non-Christian families to have to say a Christian prayer that they don't believe in, and they are often reluctant to stand out among their peers by using the 'opt-out' exemption provisions in school rules.

"Official observance of one particular religion also does not advance understanding of other religions, such as Islam, which is very important in today's world. Christian values, which promote tolerance and acceptance of human rights, should be quite compatible with a system that is essentially secular, but which is respectful of other faiths.

"It would be more acceptable if prayers and affirmations were used as an occasion to explain the different religious beliefs. On one day the school assembly could have a Muslim prayer, the next day a Christian or Hindu one, and the following day a non-religious affirmation. This would tie in with comparative religion classes, explaining the different religions and why many people don't believe in any religion at all. Prayers could be in English, Maori, Arabic and other languages.

"School assemblies should reflect the sort of tolerant and understanding multi-cultural society that we are trying to build," Mr Locke says.


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