Scrap school religion guidelines - Nats

Auckland, New Zealand - The National Party is calling on the Education Ministry to scrap its new guidelines on religion in schools, after principals said they were unworkable.

Schools will soon be advised they should seek permission from parents who want their children to take part in voluntary religious activities.

Under current practice in many schools parents who don't want their children to participate have to formally excuse them.

The ministry believe d that could place pressure on them to take part and amount to discrimination under the Bill of Rights Act.

The guidelines will also reiterate that religious activities, including prayers and Christian-based karakia, are illegal in primary and intermediate schools' normal hours under the 1964 Education Act.

Since 1877 religious activities have only been able to take place on a voluntary basis, when normal classes are closed.

But Principals Federation Pat Newman today said the current laws were impractical and the new guidelines created a "minefield" for schools.

National's education spokesman Bill English went further and called for the "silly" guidelines to be scrapped.

He said there was no need for them as there was no problem to fix.

"Boards of Trustees should use their judgment, as they always have, to determine what's best for their students, and parents should be listened to if they believe there is any coercion."

The ministry's view that prayers at assemblies should be avoided, but that Christian-based karakia were okay in kura kaupapa as long as parents were informed was "ridiculous".

He said neither did anyone any harm.

The guidelines were a "nitpicking, busybody" attempt to tell schools what to do, Mr English said.

Officials stressed yesterday it was up to schools to decide if they followed the guidelines, but warned they could face time consuming complaints from parents to bodies like the Human Rights Commission if they didn't.

Mr Newman today said it would have been better if the ministry had moved to clear up the legal problems underpinning the issue.

"It's impractical and the law is an ass around this. I think the ministry should have come out and said `look there are problems around the law as it stands and something needs to be done about it'," he said on National Radio.

"The whole thing is a minefield and really what needs to be looked at is how we can make this work."

Many parts of New Zealand culture involved aspects of Christianity, which could be seen as religious.

An example was the national anthem, which could be taken as a prayer.

In schools with a high proportion of Maori students, parents expected there would be karakia.

"Up to now people have acted reasonably. . . If there has been a problem parents have approached schools and we've worked through it."

Education Ministry senior manager Martin Connelly yesterday said he was unsure how widespread illegal religious activities were, but the guidelines were in response to a "modest stream" of complaints.

They will go out to schools in the next two months.