Education officials scrap plan for religion crackdown

Auckland, New Zealand - The Education Ministry has backtracked on plans to issue guidelines that would have highlighted a ban on religion in state primary and intermediate schools.

The guidelines would have made it clear to schools that prayers or Christian karakia in primary schools would have been illegal in most circumstances under the Education Act.

But principals, Bishops and opposition MPs all criticised the proposed guidelines as unworkable and unnecessary.

A spokesman for Education Minister Steve Maharey today told NZPA the plan, which the ministry had developed independently, had been canned.

Last month the ministry said it had come up with the guidelines in response to a "modest stream" of complaints from parents.

The advice reiterated that religious education and observance were illegal in primary schools' normal hours under the 1964 Education Act.

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

Education Ministry senior manager Martin Connelly said the new guidelines clarified schools' legal obligations under the Education Act.

It also proposed a change so students no longer had to be formally excused from religious activities. Instead their parents would have to request they be included.

The guidelines said "whole of school" religious activities, such as prayers at assemblies, should be avoided as they may put indirect pressure on pupils to participate.

A briefing paper presented to MPs said overtly religious karakia were okay in kura kaupapa as long as parents were advised they were part of the institution's special character.

This was because they were inextricably intertwined with Maori culture and custom.

It was also accepted that the teaching of Maori culture to other primary students could also have an element of religion as long parents were warned in advance.

Officials said the guidelines were merely advice, but schools were still free to make their own decisions.

However critics said the guidelines were confusing and decisions should be left to schools and their communities.