'New policy not eroding religious freedom'

The new religion policy for schools does not erode religious freedom, Education Minister Kader Asmal said.

"In fact, the policy reinforces the place of religion in schools," Asmal said in speech read by education deputy director-general Duncan Hindle at a Free State conference on religion in schools in Bloemfontein.

He said it was unfortunate that people who criticised the new policy had not even read it and did not realise this.

Asmal said the new policy, which was unanimously adopted by provincial MECs for education in Bloemfontein a few weeks ago, would be officially launched on September 9.

All the country's major religious groupings had expressed their appreciation and support for the new policy approach, he said.

The co-operative model adopted was very different to that implemented in countries which had drawn a sharp line between the state and religion. It also differed from countries that legislated a particular state religion.

"It is not a prescriptive document. Instead it encourages creative and innovative ways that are sensitive to the diversity of our people."

One result of the new policy would be the introduction of religion education as a new curricular programme in schools.

The aim of this would be to teach and learn about religion and religious diversity in South Africa and the world.

No teachers were currently trained for this and new learning materials, such as textbooks, still needed to be developed.

Religion education was aimed at affirming pupils' own spiritual identities, while developing in them an informed appreciation of the religious identities of others.

Age appropriate religion education would be taught. This allayed fears that it would turn pupils against their own religions, Asmal said.

He said the instruction in the dogma of a specific faith was, according to the new policy, primarily the responsibility of the home and religious community. Because of its sectoral nature, it could never be part of the formal school programme.

However, schools were encouraged to allow the use of their facilities for this in a manner that did not interrupt their core educational purposes.

These events could include voluntary gatherings of religious associations outside school time.

The new policy, in keeping with the Constitution, allowed schools to conduct religious observances provided it occurred on a free, voluntary and equitable basis, Asmal said.

School governing bodies had to determine the nature and content of religious observances for teachers and pupils.