Legal challenge could end Bible classes in New Zealand’s public schools

Religion | The country is one of only a few Western nations that allows the optional courses in state classrooms
by Julia A. Seymour
Posted 6/29/16, 04:12 pm

New Zealand’s Court of Appeal recently breathed new life into a challenge to religious instruction in the country’s public school system, one of the few in the West that still offers Bible classes.

The court said Jeff McClintock’s challenge to religious instruction (RI) classes, the first of its kind, can go back to the High Court, which initially dismissed the case.

McClintock must drop his lawsuit against Red Beach primary school, file a proper claim against the attorney general, and pay the necessary court fees, New Zealand News reported.

No court date has been set.

The 1960s Section 78 amendment to New Zealand’s education act allows voluntary religious instruction classes in public schools. School trustees decide whether to offer the classes, which are optional, and parents may opt-out their children, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International said.

About 40 percent of the country’s schools offer Bible classes, according to the New Zealand Herald.

McClintock’s legal battle could change that. Upset by RI classes at his daughter Violet’s school and the way teachers allegedly treated her when she opted out, McLintock sued.

He told the Herald in 2012 that teachers put Violet in the “naughty corner” during a 35-minute “Values in Action” class.

McClintock claims RI classes allowed by Section 78 conflict with the New Zealand Bill of Rights. He wants the court to rule that parents must provide informed, written consent for their children to attend, according to Secular Education Network.

The Churches Education Commission (CEC) is an “interested non-party” in the fight and the largest provider of Bible classes in New Zealand, although it did not provide classes at Red Beach.

“This is happening, and we need to wake up the Christian community,” said Stephanie Sewell, CEC’s national director. “It won’t happen overnight, but if it succeeds there will be no religious instruction in state primary schools or colleges. No prayers, or hymns, no Maori prayers.”

Rachel Trimble, a teacher and former religious instructor, told TV New Zealand’s Sunday news program that what allegedly happened to Violet was not typical or appropriate.

A spokeswoman for the CEC told Sunday its classes teach morals through Bible stories and if CEC volunteer instructors evangelize students, the organization would remove them.

Christian legal organization ADF International disagrees with McClintock’s claims that RI instruction violates the country’s laws.

“There is no clear need for Section 78 to be struck down. The current legislation does not conflict with New Zealand’s Human Rights Act or Bill of Rights, and it allows both schools and parents the right to opt out of RI,” ADF International’s Paul Coleman wrote.

“It is hard to see what benefit a change in legislation would bring, which makes the case against appear more like an attempt to get religion (read Christianity) out of New Zealand’s schools by a small minority.”

Two other members of the Secular Education Network, David Hines and Tanya Jacob, filed a separate court action petitioning to submit evidence in the McClintock case.

“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,” they wrote at the Patheos Friendly Atheist blog. “We’re opposing the Christian ‘youth workers’ paid to roam school playgrounds at lunchtime to invite children to attend local churches and camps.”

Julia A. Seymour

Julia has worked as a writer in the Washington, D.C., area since 2005 and was a fall 2012 participant in a World Journalism Institute mid-career class conducted by WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky in Asheville, N.C. Follow Julia on Twitter @SteakandaBible.

Read more from this writer