Mon | Sep 25, 2017

Discriminating against churches

Published:Friday | October 23, 2015 | 10:00 AM

As secularists become more noisy in Jamaica, their religiophobia becomes more extreme. Despite freedom of religion being clearly guaranteed in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and entrenched in the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of the Jamaican Constitution, religiophobes never seem to lose an opportunity to attack religion and religious institutions and to abuse persons of faith.

What is ironic is that almost all these religiophobes are strong advocates for 'gay rights', which are not mentioned in either the above Declaration or Charter. You would think that if they are so concerned about rights, never mind how questionable, they would respect the undisputed religious rights of others. After all, it is that same provision that respects their right to be secular.

Is Jamaica a secular state or not? It would seem not, for prayers are offered at the opening of Parliament and at almost all public functions and political meetings. I do not know of any school public or private at which prayers are not recited several times daily, and where religious hymns, songs and choruses are not part of the daily fare.

To listen to some secularist commentators, churches in Jamaica have no right to operate denominational schools, despite this right being expressly guaranteed under the Jamaican Constitution. Section 17(3) guarantees the right of a religious body or denomination to offer religious instruction in their schools, even if they receive state funding, while Section 17(4) allows persons of other denominations to opt out of religious ceremonies or observances in denominational schools.

The recent incident at St Hilda's High School has exposed sloppy management and administration. Practising Jehovah's Witnesses are not allowed to take part in the religious worship of other faiths. If being head girl means taking part and even conducting Anglican or non-denominational religious ceremonies or observances, then one would have thought that the school authorities would have run background checks on their candidate for head girl to ensure there was no obstacle. To name the person, and then rescind the appointment, is untidy at best.

Should someone be found to be a practising Jehovah's Witness, would a church school be guilty of discrimination if they disqualified that person from holding the office of head girl? Or would they be respecting the person's religious rights? I ask the public defender to judge.

Should church schools be forced to install someone as head boy or head girl whose faith is hostile to the values the school is committed to instill? Should church schools be forced to enroll students or hire teachers whose faith is hostile to the denomination which operates the school? To me, this sounds like discrimination against these religious bodies - interfering with their practice of their faith.

 

gov't not interested

 

At Independence in 1962, Jamaica had 41 high schools; of these, 10 were trust schools (the earliest being the Manning's School established in 1738), more than two-thirds (28) were church schools (the earliest being St George's College, founded in 1850), and only two had been started by the Government (Montego Bay High in 1938 and St Mary High in 1960).

The truth is that, over the decades, Jamaican governments have not been interested in top-quality high-school education. After Independence, the Government borrowed money from the World Bank and built about 80 junior secondary schools, which terminated at grade 10. Successive Jamaican governments have been more interested in protecting the semi-literate labour supply for the sugar industry and other agricultural enterprises. Over the years, junior-secondary schools have been renamed high or technical schools, but, in general, their performance lags behind the traditional high schools.

The Government has had to come to terms with the various Christian denominations which have built and operated the majority of quality high schools that exist.

The terms are these: the government pays the teachers, provides a per-student subvention, and selects 95 per cent of the annual student intake; while the churches nominate most of the school board members, hire the teachers, and run the schools according to their denominational ethos.

I think you will agree that church-owned-and-operated high schools have done very well; they are the schools of choice all over the country.

No one should be forced to attend a church school, but once there, they must follow the rules and ethos of the school.

Parents who disapprove of, say, Roman Catholicism, should not send their child to a Catholic school. To be consistent, religiophobes should send their children to secular schools. If you send your child to a church school, don't turn around and complain if you find religion there. When a church school accepts government grants-in-aid of school operations, this does not convert the church school into a government school.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and a Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.