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2021-02-02 - 03:49:03  COMMUNITY | 

End Compulsory Worship in the Schools

The Education Committee of Social Justice Bermuda calls for an end to compulsory worship within the public schools. It is time to repeal Section 28 of the Education Act 1996.
What is Section 28?

Section 28 of the Education Act 1996 refers to ‘Collective Worship’. The essence of this Section is to require all public (aided or maintained) schools to start the day with a period of collective worship– this is the legislative basis for the morning school assembly.

While there is a clause of this Section (28-7) that states that ‘the collective worship shall not be distinctive of any particular religious group’ in practice these assemblies have been dominated by explicitly Christian theology. Beyond this, the period of worship is also explicitly theistic – they exclude any atheistic or humanistic beliefs and make acceptance of a God the expectation.

Section 28 does provide for a student to be excused from collective worship, provided the parent formally requests it. However, this is only allowed if the student attends worship elsewhere (with the school making allowance for this during the school day). Furthermore, many students face exclusion, bullying and harassment should they elect for this option.
Why are we opposed to it?

School assemblies are long standing and often essential components of the school day, and they should be inclusive and seek to foster a sense of community. Assemblies, when well structured, serve an important role in promoting the ethical and social development of students.

However, acts of worship are neither necessary nor desirable methods of achieving this. Rather, compelling students to engage in collective worship constitutes a breach of students’ freedom of religion and belief. By normalizing theistic beliefs, and Christianity in particular, these acts of collective worship are exclusionary and have led to the isolation, harassment and bullying of those students who are not Christian or theists. 

Worse, these acts of isolation, harassment and bullying are often led by teachers and principals – the very people who should be looking after our students and encouraging their intellectual development and ensuring a safe learning environment. Additionally, certain interpretations of Christianity are given prominence, leading to non-Christian or non-heterosexual students being particularly vulnerable to bullying.

Schools should be institutions that are respectful and inclusive of all students, regardless of their religious beliefs or non-belief. Public monies should not be spent on forcing theology on our

 children. If parents wish their children to engage in regular religious practice, the place for that is in their home and in their places of worship, not the BPSS.
That the law allows parents to withdraw their children is not enough, especially as it requires their children to attend alternative worship and exposes them to being ‘othered’, with all the consequences of harassment and bullying that such exclusion invariably invokes.
Nor is it sufficient to simply say that the worship shall not be distinctive of any particular religious group when, in practice, Christianity (and often fundamentalist interpretations of it) are the de facto norm.
The Education Act, as it stands, is an anachronism – a remnant of the theocratic and authoritarian nightmare of the British Empire at its might. It has no place in the 21st Century, here in Bermuda or anywhere else. School or teacher directed worship is inherently coercive and oppressive.

SJB also notes that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Children have singled out the British Empire as being unique amongst Western ‘democracies’ in mandating collective worship in public schools. The UNRC has called for this law to be repealed throughout the British Empire, as it is a breach of the Rights of Children. SJB agrees and calls on Bermuda to be progressive in the service of its children, rather than awaiting imperial action.

To be clear, SJB also now calls for an end to prayers being given over the Public Announcement system. For example, at one BPSS school, there are up to four prayers a day over the PA system, during which students are expected to stand at attention or disciplinary action. All such prayers are overtly Christian focused ‘in Jesus name’ and include the Lord’s Prayer. These practices of forced religious worship are unacceptable in a 21st Century liberal democracy.

How is this a Social Justice Issue?
Social justice is about justice. This means fighting oppression everywhere and in all its forms. Coercive collective worship in the BPSS is a social injustice disguised as tradition and celebrated as culture. It contributes to injustices against non-Christians, non-theists, and LGBTQ youth. Furthermore, this pattern of coercion contributes to learned behaviors of submission in later life which can help reinforce inequality and injustice.

Simply put, no student should be coerced into collective worship or face harassment, isolation and bullying as a result of such collective worship. Schools should be safe places for our children and this form of oppression, however cloaked, must be removed.

What about morals and ethics?
It is not necessary to coerce students into collective worship to teach students lessons about ethics and community. Formal worship is neither necessary nor conducive (when coerced) to spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development and inclusion.
In place of coercive collective worship, SJB Education Committee calls for Section 28 to be repealed and replaced with guidelines for inclusive community activities such as:

1. School Assemblies – A gathering of all or part of the school focused solely on communicating information and engage in themes relevant to the school community. While assemblies may feature religious leaders as guests, the school should approach
these as opportunities for students to learn about different religions, and as such the school should seek to have such figures only occasionally and ensure that those invited represent different religions and belief systems throughout the year – i.e., Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taosim, Secular Humanism, etc.

2. Time for Reflection – A school community activity involving engagement with and reflection on an ethical, social, or culturally relevant topic.

3. Personal Reflection – A silent time-period where individuals may engage in personal worship/belief reflection in response to an ethical, social, or culturally relevant topic in a manner consistent with their own religion/belief.

4. Extra-curricular Organised Worship – Students may form clubs concerning their religion or belief practices during free time, provided doing so does not breach the rights of others. The school may facilitate these clubs but not lead them.

Bermuda, it is time for coerced collective worship, under the regulations of Section 28 of The Education Act, 1996, to be removed from the BPSS. SJB does not now, nor will it ever advocate to prevent those who wish to engage in collective worship from doing so. SJB advocates for a school environment that is inclusive and promotes a student experience which fosters well-rounded spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development.
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