Letter to the Minister

The following letters were written by a members of the Secular Education Network to the Minister of Education recommending repeal of section 78 of the education act that permits schools to run religious instruction.  You may like to use them as a starting point for you own letter.

Sample Letter 1

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to the Ministry in regard to clause 78 of the Education Act (1964) that allows religious instruction to take place in state primary schools. Religious instruction(RI), however well intended, creates a discriminatory environment in the classroom and the school as a whole. Our children have first-hand experience of how divisive and prejudicial an influence RI has in school and I ask that the clause be repealed.

Bible in Schools or any similar programme is incompatible with aims to provide a non-discriminatory classroom environment. Once a week an adult, who looks very much like a teacher and is given the authority of a teacher is allowed to stand in front of the class and promote their religious beliefs. There is no disclaimer beforehand to tell the kids that this person is not a teacher and that what they say may very well not be true. They are simply allowed to proceed to encourage children to accept their opinions as fact.

The most recent Census figures indicate that a little over half of New Zealanders consider themselves Christian. As far as the children are concerned a little over half of them have their family’s beliefs endorsed and validated by the school, and the rest are discouraged from asserting themselves as different. Being told that you can opt out shines a light on differences in beliefs at an age where children are very black and white in their thinking, and feeling included is vitally important. Throw in lollies handed out to the children who attend RI and not infrequent “make-work” for those who do not attend and it quickly becomes clear to the children that some children are being preferentially treated because of their religious beliefs. Religious instruction seeps into other areas of school life, as children start bringing bibles to school and blogging on the school website about what they learned in RI that day. It is not benign, it is not simply cultural heritage and it is not just story telling.

Our children currently attend Harewood School in Christchurch, our oldest is in year 3. We were aware that the school had RI from the beginning and opted out. Though concerned that valuable curriculum time was being handed over for religious instruction we felt confident enough that opting out would not be problematic. However, since then there have been continual and increasing incidences of discrimination. In the early days there were times when our children were kept in the same classroom during RI, which we put a stop to. Then our son was put to washing dishes in the staffroom, which we also put a stop to. The last two years has seen more and more comments and bullying by other students for example asking my children why they don’t believe in god and saying that they will go to hell. There is teasing and ostracism which may seem mild to adults but is very hurtful and confusing for young children.

My husband and I have recently approached the school as we noticed behavioural changes and anxiety in our son. We had previously not wanted to make a fuss as we felt it would emphasise a difference between the children and make things worse. The school has responded reasonably and I must emphasise that my letter is not about condemning the schools conduct. My intention is to illustrate the impact of allowing religious groups access to our state schools and argue for legislation change that protects a religiously neutral school environment.

Handing over responsibility to school boards for the decision whether or not to have RI leaves children vulnerable to religious groups insinuating themselves into schools via the school boards and perpetuates the problem of entrenched discrimination. The selection process for board members is based on whoever puts themselves forward for the vote. Those individuals are not obliged to reveal their religious affiliations and nor should they be. I would not be assessing someone’s competency and enthusiasm for the role based on their personal beliefs. However, they are also extremely unlikely to be candid about any agenda to influence religious policy within the school. It is my understanding that the Christian Education Commission, for example, encourages church members to stand for their school boards.

Our state schooling must provide the best practicable ethical environment. The current curriculum already includes values that help guide the development of ethical decision making in children. If it is deemed by some people to be inadequate, then the likes of the Primary Ethics programme that operates in New South Wales could be considered. Clause 78 is no longer a satisfactory reflection of New Zealand values and needs to be repealed. I am aware that the Ministry attempted to repeal this legislation in 2006. Please do not give in to pressure from religious lobby groups. This is a topic that parents are wary to discuss openly but support for keeping religion out of schools is becoming more organised and the discussion is becoming more visible thanks to the efforts of the Secular Education Network. Certainly families are free to pursue religious observance of their choosing in this country. Now we just need to ensure that our children can go to state schools without being discriminated against because of religion.

Thank you for your consideration of this issue.

Sample Letter 2

Hon Hekia Parata,

This is an open letter to request a repeal of section 78 in the education act. This letter is an attempt to shed further light on
why I and other members of the Secular Education Network of New Zealand have concerns.

I have focussed the following hypothetical around politics, because as an analogy it should be close enough to home to give
you a sense of where we are coming from with respect to values education and the encroach or religion into this domain…..

Legislation is introduced allowing schools to shut down for 60 minutes per week for political instruction. Due to school
board members being sympathetic to a political party in opposition to yours, they invite in their volunteers to once a week
introduce age appropriate political ideas to children, and omit to invite volunteers with perspectives from alternative
political parties, including yours.

The school notifies parents that their children will by default attend these classes, and are given the option to opt their
child out. Due to subscribing to other political ideas (or none at all), a small minority of parents, choose this option. The
rest, for a variety of reasons, including segregation their peers, leave their children in these classes.

Over the course of their early education, children attending these classes begin to have their political beliefs shaped to
varying degrees by this political Party’s ideology. Conversely, children whose parents have opted them out, are not exposed
to any age appropriate political education whatsoever.

Questions for you:

1 – Given the risk of a school board to favour a political party that is not yours, would you prefer not to live in a world
where the above scenario was true?

2 – Would you prefer that if children were to be taught age appropriate politics that they are taught about all political
perspectives in a comparative manner within a regulated framework, to ensure their political beliefs are not shaped and
biased by one political ideology to the exclusion of others?

To be fair, it would be almost impossible to imagine the above bizarre scenario were the world we were living in with
respect to political education and any specific political ideology, yet that is exactly the world are living in with respect to
moral/ethical values education and Christianity.
If you answered yes to any of the above questions I posed, you may have a sense by now of why so many of us from the
Secular Education Network are uncomfortable with the existence of section 78.

Please, let us all know what action you intend to take on this issue and when. Religious or not, this affects all of us, and our



Why not write your own letter now.  We would love to read it on https://www.facebook.com/groups/211000182273935/