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South African court rules against single-religion schools

By Robert Njeru

The Johannesburg High Court has passed a ruling outlawing single-religion schools in South Africa.

This means that it is now illegal for public schools to promote any one religion at the exclusion of others. This ruling has drawn mixed reactions from various circles.

According to the High Court, promotion of any particular religion at schools is bound to put pupils at a disadvantage.

The ruling was welcomed by the Organisation for Religious Education and Democracy (OGOD); this organization brought the matter to the court and it has been in the forefront in the fight against religious indoctrination through public schools in the nation.

The Times, a South African daily, reported that OGOD founder Mr Pieterson had said the schools had been coercing young learners into participating in Christianity. The organization’s application targeted six predominantly Christian public schools in South Africa.

The court ruled that it was an offence to promote one religion at the expense of others and hence the schools had breached a section of the Schools Act.

Education Minister Angie Motshekga has also been supporting OGOD, stating that focusing on just one religion is not acceptable. On the other hand, Solidarity and the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools have argued that the existing case law, legal framework and the constitution permits the promotion of a single religion in schools.

In his ruling, Judge Willem van der Linde said that no public school or school governing body is permitted to support a certain religion while ignoring others.

He also explained that the court’s decision was based on the understanding and appreciation of South Africa’s diverse cultural and religious traditions. With this in mind, it would be unfair for a school to brand or associate itself with a single religion with little regard for the people’s faith. It’s simply not democratic.

His judgement read: “The overarching constitutional theme is that our society is diverse, that diversity is to be celebrated and that specific rights are conferred and dealt with in pursuance of that principle. Public schools, just like other public assets, should not leave anyone outside but should work towards satisfying the needs of society as a whole.”

According to a report by South Africa’s Independent Online, the national department of education has also supported the court’s decision. The department said that it also has a policy that no particular religion should be given priority at the expense of other religions.

A spokesperson for the department also said that they are just hoping to protect children and therefore this should not be misinterpreted as a ban of religious practices in schools. He added that, instead of promoting one religion over another, schools should focus on religion education rather than religious instruction.

This ruling is bound to evoke more mixed reactions around the globe and it remains to be seen how South Africans will adapt to the new law.