Court rules against ‘single faith branding’ in landmark ruling

Judge Willem van der Linde handed down this landmark ruling at the South Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg on Wednesday, June 28.

This follows an application brought against six schools by the Organisation for Religious Education and Democracy (Ogod), which alleged that there was religious bias in public schools and pupils were being taught to be religious instead of learning about diverse religions.

Basic Education Minister, Angie Motshekga, supported the application and argued in court papers that schools were not permitted to focus on just one religion.

Ogod called for the Court to ban these schools from singing Christian songs, to divide Christian books, and to stop opening the school day with scripture readings and prayer.

The case was opposed by the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools and trade union Solidarity, which represented the six schools.

In the ruling, the judge said the court remains concerned around the issue of “single faith branding” or that a public school endorses one particular religion to the exclusion of others.

One of the schools affected is a local primary school, Laerskool Baanbreker, in Parkrand.

The other schools include Randhart Primary School in Alberton, Garsfontein Primary School in Pretoria, Linden High School in Johannesburg, Oudtshoorn High School and Langenhoven Gymnasium in Oudtshoorn,

While handing down the judgment, van der Linde quoted from Section 15 of the Constitution which deals with freedom of religion, belief and opinion.

“Religious observances may be conducted at state or state-aided institutions, provided that:

a. Those observances follow rules made by the appropriate public authorities;

b. They are conducted on an equitable basis and

c. Attendance at them is free and voluntary.”

He continued to say that they had, however, also found at the level of principle that neither a school governing body nor a public school may lawfully hold out that it subscribes to only a single particular religion to the exclusion of others. The court found that it was against the Education Act to promote one faith or one religion primarily at the expense of others or allow school staff to do it.

“In the circumstances, we issue the following order:

a. It is declared that it offends Section 7 of the Schools Act, 84 of 1996 for a public school –

i. To promote or allow its staff to promote that it as a public school adheres to only one, or predominantly only one, religion to the exclusion of others; and

ii. To hold out that it promotes the interests of any one religion in favour of others,” he stated.

The six schools and the Federation of Governing Bodies of South African Schools (Fedsas) along with AfriForum and trade union Solidarity, are opposing the bid.

Solidarity argued before the high court that 24 000 schools in the country would be affected by the ruling.

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Ischke de Jager

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