In the last Census, almost a third of New Zealanders said they had "no religion". It is, therefore, unsurprising there is increasing tension about Bible teaching in state schools. In Auckland, this has manifested itself in at least three primary schools dropping the Bible in Schools programme in the past three years after many pupils opted out.
The 1964 Education Act says that while state primary schools do not have to provide religious instruction or observance, they can, under certain conditions, if desired by their boards of trustees. A school can close for up to one hour a week, up to a total of 30 hours a year, for this purpose in a manner approved by the board. Typically, the instruction occurs before or after school or in the lunch break.
The same act, however, also dictates that children must be allowed to opt out if their parents do not want them to participate.
This has created practical problems for some schools because the legislation also says they must cater for these pupils and ensure appropriate supervision and instruction is provided when a school is closed for religious purposes.
Last year, at Browns Bay School (Auckland), about 50 pupils quit the Bible in Schools programme from a roll of 500. This year, even more have done so. For Browns Bay, the problem of providing for these children's safety became too much.
Such situations have, understandably, perturbed those who value the programme and those who supply it. Robin Palmer, of the Browns Bay Presbyterian Church, said he believed that children whose schools did not use the programme would be at a disadvantage. The programme added value to the school, Mr Palmer said.
Many would agree, but a changing society creates changing priorities. One of these must be the increasing number of pupils opting out.
It seems apparent that our changing society means religious instruction and observance will continue to dwindle. And that the view of Browns Bay principal Roger Harnett will have increasing currency.
"Parents have ample opportunity to teach children about the Bible outside school time," he says. So, too, do churches.
- APNZ News and Media