Asmal puts religion on equal footing

The government is calling on school teachers to teach religion in an impartial manner, regardless of their own views.

Minister of Education Kader Asmal does not want teachers to promote a particular religion, or a prescribed set of religions, or a particular religious perspective, because it will place students who come from "diverse religious, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, at risk of discrimination and prejudice".

This is the gist of the newly released policy on religion and education, which will be gazetted on Friday.

Asmal yesterday launched the policy document at a function at Parliament.

Asmal said the policy sets out three key aspects of religion and education, which is founded on the philosophical premise that the state cannot allow one religion to be taught at its schools or cannot completely disassociate religion from the state.

It therefore proposes a co-operative model, "with the state and church in harmony, existing separately in our specific spheres, and working collectively in shared spheres of interest, like education".

All students will, as part of the Life Skills Programme, receive religious education where they will learn about religious diversity in South Africa. This will not be confessional or sectarian in approach, but will seek to "increase understanding, build respect for diversity, value spirituality, and clarify the religious and non-religious source of moral values".

The policy says religious education will not promote any particular religion, but acknowledges the right of students to receive religious instruction.

It accepts that children might have to receive instruction "in the dogma of a specific faith with a view to the formation of an adherent to the faith".

The policy contends that this is the task of the parent or the religious community and should fall outside the responsibility of the education system.

Asmal said the education system will seek to support this function by encouraging schools to make provision for important religious holidays to be observed, and also that students be afforded "release time" to attend certain religious observances, provided the lost school time is made up.

The policy also encourages schools to make the school building available for such religious instruction, but that these must take place outside of school hours.

Asmal said the new policy concurs with the Constitution and the South African Schools Act that says students have the right to perform religious observances, particularly within the context of school assemblies.

The policy accords the right to decide on such issues to the school governing body, provided it is done in the context of free and voluntary association and on an equitable basis.

These religious observances include voluntary public occasions which make use of school facilities for religious service, voluntary occasions when the school community gather for a religious observance, or meetings during break time and an observance which may be ongoing and entails other dimensions such as dress, prayer times and diets.

The policy recommends processes to ensure equitability in the implementation of religious observances at schools. It proposes the separation of students according to religion, "where the observance takes place outside of the context of the school assembly".

It also proposes equitable opportunities for observances by all faiths, rotation of opportunities for observances, selected readings from various texts emanating from different religions, the use of a universal prayer, or the observance of a period of silence.