Editorial: Fault beyond St Hilda’s head
While we welcome the finding of the Public Defender, Arlene Harrison-Henry, that Jade Bascoe was not only humiliated but that her constitutional right was infringed when she was stripped of the post as head girl of St Hilda's Diocesan High School, we cannot agree with blaming this act of bigotry entirely on the school's principal Heather Reid-Johnson and the exculpation of the school's board and the Anglican church.
The evidence, on reconsideration, suggests that while the Anglican Church and the board that oversees St Hilda's may have no formal policy of bigotry against Jehovah's Witnesses they were at least permissive of passive discrimination against them. Further, both, based on public declarations, supported the action of the principal when a legal and moral wrong was being perpetrated against the 16-year-old student.
St Hilda's is an Anglican high school for girls. It receives subventions from Jamaica's taxpayers. Bascoe, by all accounts, is one of its exemplary students. Last month, she was appointed head girl. But days later that appointment was rescinded when, alerted by her use of the word Jehovah, it was discovered that her denomination was listed as Jehovah's Witness on her registration forms.
As this newspaper argued a fortnight ago, Harrison-Henry concluded that the exclusion or disqualification of persons from leadership positions "based on denomination is a discriminatory practice and has no place in our schools and no place in our democracy". It breaches an individual's right to freedom of religion under the Constitution's Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms. What is important, in the circumstance, is a person's capacity and or willingness to fulfill the responsibilities that go with his/her position.
The Public Defender rightfully excoriated Reid-Johnson's apparent lack of sensitivity, high-handedness and apparent lack of remorse in the handling of what was a delicate manner, involving a minor. But she let others off the hook, when a broader perusal of public information would have caused her to conclude otherwise.
Harrison-Henry declared that the school board had no hand in the decision to revoke the head-girl appointment; that was a day-to-day management issue within the purview of the principal. She also declared "as fact that neither the school board nor the Church has any policy of discrimination whatsoever". Maybe not voluntarily so.
However, at the height of the controversy, the school issued at statement saying that despite its long history of accommodating non-Anglicans at St Hilda's "we have never asked students of other (religious) persuasions to assume duties that are in conflict with the beliefs and practices of their faith". And in the case of Bascoe, the school acted not on the fact of a conflict between her religion and her duties, but the "potential" thereof, so "decided to rescind this student's appointment".
If the school board or the diocese did not have a hand in that statement of October 8, they certainly didn't challenge it.
That same day, Robert Thompson, the Suffragan Bishop of Kingston told this newspaper: "We don't like the idea of the Church being embroiled in a situation like this, but I am indeed very comfortable that the principal made the right decision and she has the full support of the board and the Diocese."
That appears to be policy beyond Reid-Johnson. And some might claim a whiff of bigotry.