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Editorial: How St Hilda’s erred

Published:Friday | October 9, 2015 | 10:00 AM

We accept the assurance from the management of the St Hilda's Diocesan High School in Brown's Town, St Ann, that religious bigotry had no role in its decision to strip its head girl of her post but can only conclude that action as premature, profoundly mishandled and, in the circumstances, patently wrong.

In the event, it is important and urgent that the education minister, Ronald Thwaites, a Roman Catholic deacon, put in place guidelines for how such appointments are to be handled in order to prevent the risk of embarrassment, such as attended Jade Bascoe, or worse, breaches of people's constitutional right to freedom of religion, or discrimination therefrom.

St Hilda's, an all-girls school, established by the Anglican Church 109 years ago, is one of Jamaica's most prestigious high schools. Although it, like most of the country's high schools, receives substantial financial support from the Government, it remains broadly under the umbrella of the Anglican Diocese of Jamaica.

Being appointed head girl or head boy must be among the high points of any child's school career. And at St Hilda's, we do not believe it would have come easily. Ms Bascoe would have met the required academic standards, been consistently disciplined, and displayed the potential for leadership for the administration to repose the trust it obviously had in her.

But within days of her appointment, Ms Bascoe was removed as head girl, apparently because she was, or was presumed to be, an adherent of the Jehovah's Witness faith, which her mother, Rhonda Clarke, admits to have declared at the time of registering the child at the school. Ms Clarke now says that neither she nor her daughter is a practising member of the faith.

Either way, it ought not to matter. For conflicts of interest ought not to be presumed. They have to be acted upon.

It is perhaps noble of St Hilda's to have accommodated all students, regardless of religious adherence, and "never to have asked students of other persuasions to assume duties that are in conflict with the beliefs and practices of their faith". Many of the duties and obligations of a head girl would disqualify a practising Jehovah's Witness from the position. So, having concluded this to be the case with Ms Bascoe, St Hilda's administrators "thought it unwise to put her in that position" and decided, therefore, to rescind her appointment.

The school posed the wrong question, which should not have been about her religious persuasion.

The start point should not be religion, but Ms Bascoe's, or anyone else's, competence for, and willingness to fulfil, the duties required of a head girl or any other job. If these duties impinged on religious beliefs, then Ms Bascoe would so declare and become ineligible for the job.

For, as Mr Thwaites would be aware, there are many declared Roman Catholics who do not strictly follow the church's teachings. Many, for instance, use contraceptives or are gay. So, too, do some Adventists occasionally breach the Sabbath for work, or Rastafarian chefs who cook pork.

Starting with questions of religious affiliation risks making wrong assumptions on infringing people's constitutional rights - and not just relating to freedom of religion.

Our suggestion to Mr Thwaites is to have schools develop clear performance criteria for head boys and head girls, which potential appointees, with the approval of their parents, have to agree they can fulfil, which Ms Bascoe may have been able to.