Rites and wrongs: St Hilda’s and Jehovah
In Jamaica, it cannot be said with any real certainty that there exists a public school that is by strict definition Catholic, Anglican, Buddhist, Adventist, Rastafarian, Bah·'Ì, or agnostic. The administrators of the institution might wish for students to adhere to certain religious principles rooted in the doctrine of the church that founded it, but neither the law governing the institution nor the Constitution on which it relies provide for any unwanted imposition of religious observation.
There are private or independent schools that are free to espouse any faith of their choosing, but, nonetheless, all educational institutions fall under the guidance and supervision of the Ministry of Education and all are, therefore, subject to the laws and Constitution of Jamaica, which explicitly safeguard religious freedom, as well as freedom of conscience.
Because of a history of deep religiosity, alignment between educational and religious institutions remains a key feature of Jamaica's educational tradition and some have complained that the concepts of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience in the Jamaican context only operate to protect the freedoms of certain Christian traditions while simultaneously working to alienate all others.
Various Christian denominations founded some of our oldest and most prestigious schools and many of these same institutions remained, in large part, under their stewardship, even after the Government became primary stakeholder through the provision of grants and subsidies provided for by taxpayers.
Over the years, some private schools with specialised curricula and/or specific guiding philosophies also emerged, some of them because of the cultural and systemic discrimination experienced by children of religious minorities, but also because, truthfully, indoctrination and the maintenance of religious tradition is far more effective in a controlled environment with a captive audience of like-minded people.
So in Jamaica, we have an educational landscape where public schools appear to be secular institutions, though by tradition each educational institution almost necessarily has a Christian affiliation that is projected on to all members of that school's family.
Conversely, we have private institutions with clear doctrinal positions that must be adhered to at the peril of termination of the relationship. Both types of institutions engage in a balancing act concerning their own freedom of religion and conscience and that of their students.
Typically, the balance shifts in favour of the religious status quo and this hegemony remains unchallenged because it is thought to impart the right values and attitudes that students must absorb and demonstrate. At some schools, the culture is one of quiet reverence and acknowledgement of the contribution by the body of faith to the realisation of the opportunities provided by the school; and in other schools, there is a culture of proselytisation in further-ance of specific religious beliefs, and ostracism or exclusion of those that are known or believed to be non-adherent.
Bearing this context in mind, it wasn't very surprising to hear recent reports that the Anglican-affiliated St Hilda's Diocesan High unceremoniously reversed the appointment of an exemplary student as head girl because her suspected religious affiliation made her suddenly ineligible to continue holding the position. This was possibly motivated out of fear that the school's strong ideological tradition might be derailed as a result of the prominence of an adherent to a different Christian tradition.
It is said that suspicions became heightened when the student mentioned 'Jehovah' during a speaking engagement shortly after her appointment, which then prompted the school's administration to investigate her records in order to determine her continued suitability. Investigations revealed that some years prior, the child's mother had identified the child's religious affiliation as Jehovah's Witness. Ironically, most persons feel obligated to complete this section on such forms irrespective of their true spiritual dedication because for a great number of Jamaicans, identification as non-religious is synonymous with and indicative of moral bankruptcy.
Notwithstanding the fact that Jamaica has a Charter of Fundamental Rights & Freedoms that outlines the State's obligation to promote universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and freedoms, including the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of religion, it is troubling that at this point in our history, a child of this soil was precluded from further personal development seemingly because of the 'sins' of her parents. The justification provided by the school for this prejudicial act is insufficient but is sure to be accepted by many because of the contempt routinely heaped in the direction of non-traditional belief systems.
I am very interested to hear the perspective of the minister of education, Ronald Thwaites, who has vowed to issue a statement today.