School split over religion club ban

Wellington, New Zealand - A close-knit primary school's board of trustees has banned a lunchtime religious studies group, amid calls the decision is in breach of rights.

The board at Wellington's Seatoun School banned the weekly KidsKlub meeting, which a third of its 400 pupils attended, apparently because it felt content was inappropriate.

The decision has caused the school community to fracture and a former Prime Minister's criticism has forced the board to review the ban.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the architect of the Bill of Rights Act, said in a written opinion that the ban breached the bill's guarantee of freedom of religion.

Lunchtime meetings were not in school time, were voluntary and were allowed under the Education Act.

"The decision is not reasonable and cannot be 'demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society'."

The board's legal advisers, Chapman Tripp, and the School Trustees Association have backed its position.

Chris Haines, president of the School Trustees Association, said his organisation stood by the advice.

"We believe they have the legal right to do it," he said. "But we advise and the board makes its own decision."

The Education Act allows religious instruction at otherwise secular state schools by providing for schools to "close" while the classes are held. It also allows children to opt out if they have a letter from parents.

KidsKlub is based on a Scripture Union programme and similar classes are held at about 20 other North Island primary schools.

Mike McKee, one of the five parents who host the meetings, said it was sad that a close and friendly community had come to such a dispute.

KidsKlub had been running for two years without a complaint before a new board was elected and dumped the meetings, which dealt with "values and relationships" and involved scripture, craft, stories and role-playing.

"It's mainstream stuff, but now we have kids who believe it's illegal. We've tried to deal with this within the community because we feared it would become fractious, but there's been no traction from the board."

The school board's deputy chairman, Bob Roche, said the decision was being reviewed.

"We do not want to get involved in a public debate. There's a legal opinion saying we've breached the [Bill of Rights] Act and one saying we didn't."

The review would take into account the various legal opinions and a survey from parents.

Mr McKee said a letter was being sent to parents about the situation.

"We are at a place we never wanted to be, but [the club] has to be reinstated. It's not a case of a survey on what people think. Rights are rights."