Separation between church and state and relition in public schools

So I’ve been taking a crash course in the South African constitution, specifically as it pertains to the freedom of religion and even more specifically, freedom from religion in public schools (and other public educational institutions, including public tertiary education). This was precipitated by the discussion on the Afrikaans sub-forum here in which the suggestion was made that because separation of church and state is not explicitly stated in the Constitution, it renders the situation with religious dominance in public schools (where one religion is declared as “more right” than other religions or no religion) a difficult one to solve.

Upon re-reading the Constitution, I found that I disagreed and instead of derailing the previous thread further, I thought I’d post a new thread on this topic.

This is quoted directly from the Constitution (Section fifteen):

[b]15. Freedom of religion, belief and opinion[/b]
  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.

  2. Religious observances may be conducted at state or state-aided institutions, provided that ­
    a. those observances follow rules made by the appropriate public authorities;
    b. they are conducted on an equitable basis; and
    c. attendance at them is free and voluntary.

  3. a. This section does not prevent legislation recognising ­
    i. marriages concluded under any tradition, or a system of religious, personal or family law; or
    ii. systems of personal and family law under any tradition, or adhered to by persons professing a particular religion.
    b. Recognition in terms of paragraph (a) must be consistent with this section and the other provisions of the Constitution.

Further, the constitution clearly sets out not only the powers and competencies of various organs of state, but it also describes the process by which public officials are to be appointed. My argument is therefore that we do not strictly speaking need an ‘establishment clause’. Further, as to the issue of public educational institutions declaring a “dominant” religion with disregard of subsections 15.2b and 15.2c, one should be able to challenge the constitutionality of their policy based on that disregard?

An argument can even be made that subsection 15.2c is an extremely fragile thing, since coercion can be direct or indirect (similar to the arguments made by George Claassen way back when).

My question, therefore, is dual:

1.) Do we need an explicit 'establishment" separation of state and church clause?
2.) Given section 15.2 and applying it specifically on public educational facilities, is there a justification for the practice of declaring a “dominant” religion and “enforcing” only said dominant religion? Can such a practice be said to fulfill the terms in section 15.2.b and c?

My answers to both these questions are “no”, although I’ll add to my “no” on #1 that such a clause would certainly make my life easier, so I’m not against it per se.

I’m interested in what other thinkers here think on this matter and what, if anything, can possibly be done in this regard. Should “we” (those of us who are uncomfortable with public educational institutions declaring a “dominant” religion) be agitating for an amendment of the Constitution to include separation of church and state, or what? What can be done about this ridiculous situation?

I mean, when it comes to a place where someone has to publically resign an argument due to threats and intimidation (also classifiable as terrorism?) rather than conviction (see: George Claassen), does this not indicate a fundamental and extremely worrisome problem?

So what can be done to address this problem?

The situation is currently very murky with all sorts of attendant conflicting practical, emotional and ethical dilemmas that bedevil it. The main reason for this is a widespread misunderstanding of what the Constitution actually protects in terms of religious belief and practice. It is common for people to maintain that freedom of belief and practice (subject to the Constitution’s provisions) extends them the freedom to impose these things on others, especially those in their charge such as children. This false presumption is a direct and inevitable outgrowth of religions’ incessant demands for special considerations.

Any level-headed and impartial appraisal must conclude, as you do, that schools and other public institutions are engaged in unconstitutional and unlawful activities whenever they endorse one religious canon above another. In the case of schools, there is to the best of my knowledge indeed a prescription that religion in its various forms must be taught dispassionately as a social phenomenon, i.e. comparative religion classes, not religious instruction in the school’s or teacher’s preferred belief system.

The situation urgently demands resolution through a challenge in and a ruling by the Constitutional Court. I know of a case where a science teacher at a state school glossed over evolution, barely covering the syllabus’s requirements, and instead pushed Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design for a considerable part of the allotted periods. This was a clear instance of various crimes and transgressions, which should have ended up in a court of law. Unfortunately, the parents, while disturbed by this incident, were loath to take it further out of fear of reprisals (ostracism, bullying) against their children at the school. George Claassen himself gave up attempting to rectify the problem, allegedly after threats were made against his family.

The main problem, then, seems to be not so much separating the right from the wrong, Constitutionally speaking, as it is to separate the legally pertinent questions from all the obstructing baggage that comes with them. The only way I see that happening is if someone has the courage, wherewithal and perseverance to take a school or even the Education Department all the way to the Constitutional Court.


A very difficult scenario, considering you’re placing your child in a situation which is problematic for an adult to deal with, the child will be placed at risk of being ostracised by teachers and friends alike. You can remove your child from the school, but once again, its the child that needs to adjust to a new environment and to make new friends with no guarantee that the new institution wont come with an identical set of problems. Very few parents will take that leap and stir up controversy which will affect their child.

From my personal experience having one religion being advanced in a school is not a big issue, if you as a kid was brought up to question things and not take anything on faith having someone read out of the bible every morning would not have a big impact. I personally took as much notice to the bible message at the beginning of the day as the message of you should not smoke behind rugby scoreboard.

I agree with Fearie, if you were to take on the school you will probably create a greater problem in their lives like bullying and losing friends than having them sit through a 10 min reading of the bible. If they were brought up without believe the teacher might as well be reading form The Hobbit each morning.

Indeed, and that is largely what I mean when I write, “The situation is currently very murky with all sorts of attendant conflicting practical, emotional and ethical dilemmas that bedevil it” and, “The main problem, then, seems to be not so much separating the right from the wrong, Constitutionally speaking, as it is to separate the legally pertinent questions from all the obstructing baggage that comes with them.”

The trouble, of course, is that very few children are raised without religious indoctrination of one sort or another, or are properly taught from a young age to exercise their critical faculties. Children are innately trusting of adult authority which is why these problems persist and will continue to do so. Replacing religious instruction in schools with comparative religious studies removes the near-constant barrage of religious indoctrination from one prominent arena that children find themselves in. I expect that through the comparative angle, many more of them will start seeing that all is not well with their parents’ religious beliefs because there’s so many different versions, none of which is essentially better or worse founded than any other.

In brief, too many children are being indoctrinated and religions retain their sacred-cow status because religious indoctrination in and by schools remains unchallenged, despite being Unconstitutional. Those are the reasons why religious instruction in any form or guise should not be part of the school syllabus.

And, owing to people’s reluctance and/or apathy, it will remain a sticky problem until someone challenges it all the way to the Constitutional Court with a view to getting a firm decision, which is the main thrust of my argument.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that such an action would be easy or even likely, only that it would be necessary in order to obtain clarity.


It’s not only the Constitution that’s relevant - we also have a National Policy on Religion & Education, linked in my post here: , and further discussed here: . The policy is worth a read, and once you read it, you’ll realise that many schools simply ignore it. I’ve written to around 10 schools by now, after receiving complaints from parents, drawing their attention to contraventions. Only one has responded. I fear that a lawsuit - something like the groundbreaking McCollum case in the US - is the only way we’re ever going to get this separation enforced.

Thank you for your links, Jacques.

So, to take this further, I am curious and I’m not sure who to ask about this. If there were to be an organization in South Africa, something like what America has in the Freedom from Religion Foundation but not necessarily exactly like that, would such a non-profit org be able to challenge something like this schools declaring a dominant religion on behalf of affected parties even if the org itself is not the one who is affected?

What I mean is if we had this hypothetical organization (which doesn’t exist yet and is purely hypothetical right now), could people who were afraid of victimization but have an issue with how the Constitution and the National Policy on Religion and Education is (not) being followed, be able to make a case even though the organization itself would not be the affected party in such a case? Could they act on behalf of someone (or a bunch of someones) in order to protect those people’s anonymity? And what would the first steps be - to contact the schools, and then?

I’m not sure how exactly our law works in this regard, which is why I am asking.

I think in SA law you will only be permitted to file a civil suit if you can show both cause and standing — that is to say, if you can show that you and/or one of your dependants is being affected (= cause), and that you yourself have sufficient material involvement in the matter (= standing). Failure to meet either criterion adequately is, AFAIK, enough for a dismissal of the action. In what you’re suggesting, it’s not clear to me how either standing or cause would be established. The law does not regard moral outrage alone as a legitimate call to arms, no matter how egregiously unlawful the alleged situation may be.

A good lawyer (’scuse the oxymoron) should be able to comment more fully.