This is a guest post by David Hines and Tanya Jacob, both of whom work with the New Zealand-based Secular Education Network.
Noting that Richard Dawkins and Cardinal Pell became conveniently ill just as they were mentioned on your blog, we are nervous about doing the same. However, we cannot resist a chance to tell about an unnecessary law written in New Zealand in 1877 that is finally getting challenged in court thanks to our Secular Education Network.
The 1877 law introduced the separation of church and state into New Zealand, setting up the first state schools, declaring that they must be open at least two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, and requiring that “all the teaching must be secular.” This heirloom survives as the Education Act 1964 Section 77.
But within a few years sharp evangelists noted that if schools opened for two and a half hours in the morning, they could just declare that they were really “closed” for the first half hour. And since they were closed, they were not required to be secular during that time. It was a loophole that our predominantly Christian country didn’t mind.
These lessons are conducted by Christian amateurs. They’re said to be lessons on values but are actually heavy on Christian doctrine, with prayers to Jesus and recommendations that children pass the Good News along to their parents and friends.
In 1961, this loophole became hard law. A review of the Education Act led to an amendment, EA1964 Section 78, which said “notwithstanding Section 77,” schools could close whenever they wanted and invite the religion of their choice to do whatever they liked with the nation’s young minds. Unsurprisingly, they all chose the same religion: Christianity.
For good measure, they wrote Section 79, giving dissenting parents the right to remove their children from class while the Bible lessons were being conducted. (Remember: Schools were technically closed at these times, anyway.) Our supporters still debate whether they should bring their children to school early just to sit in the library and be pilloried as atheists… or bring them late and be accused of truancy.
In 2013, the New Zealand census showed a 6-point lurch away from religion, leaving 42% of us with No Religion and Christians at 48% (dipping below 50% for the first time).
For this reason, our friend Jeff McClintock (also from the Secular Education Network) filed a case in the High Court, asking for a declaration that Section 78 was inconsistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. This case is due to be heard on April 26.
Doing a double-take, Tanya and I realised that this would not fix the problem; even if successful, it would just take us back to the ambiguous law of 1977. Section 77 would still be in force and our churches would simply move their evangelists into the lunch break, after school, into Good News Clubs, and the like. And this is just our primary schools. Our secondary schools would just go on evangelizing as usual because — in another oversight — Section 77 doesn’t mention secondary schools at all. So they were never secularized to begin with.
That’s why the two of us — David and Tanya — have filed a separate court action, aiming to present our evidence into Jeff’s hearing. Our application will be heard on April 6.
The Human Rights Commission reckons this is of major significance and this week they applied to join the fight as well. The media is starting to take notice — of the Human Rights Commission as well as us.
Tanya and I will be opposing all forms of evangelism in state schools whether they are open, closed, or ajar with evangelists sticking their toes into the gap. We’re opposing the Christian “youth workers” paid to roam school playgrounds at lunchtime to invite children to attend local churches and camps.
We’ve roped in a dozen more witnesses, including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists as well as the booming non-religious sector. This morning I write this, we accepted an offer of financial support from the Temple of Satan.
Quick note: Our complaint was originally booked for a lower court, the Human Rights Review Tribunal, but — excuse the phrase, my U.S. friends — this tribunal is trumped by the High Court. So with McClintock’s case being heard there, we had to switch our case to the High Court as well or be outclassed. The switch means hiring top lawyers with a bill of $30,000 ($20,000 USD). If you’d like to help us bring sanity and secularity to this part of the world, you’re welcome to chip in here. We appreciate your help.