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Thwaites supports mandatory religious exercises in schools

Published:Tuesday | January 20, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Jovan Johnson, Gleaner Writer

Jamaica's education ministry says it supports schools that make it mandatory for students to attend devotions and mainly Christian activities except on religious grounds.

About 40 per cent of Jamaica's schools are either owned or sponsored by a Christian denomination. And while many schools are not, they still, generally, make it mandatory for students to participate in religious exercises.

In an interview with The Gleaner, Education Minister Ronald Thwaites said despite growing secularism and the intensification of globalisation, Jamaican life is fundamentally based on a Christian heritage. He said religious exposure is important in reinforcing social values, building ethical structures and keeping the society together.

"Exposure to religious education helps with discipline, order, cooperation, tolerance and other good virtues like sacrifice and postponement of instant gratification, and so generally I am in support of this," Thwaites said.

Different beliefs

The education minister, who is a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church, was speaking in a soon to be published Gleaner current affairs programme, On The Record. He said if there is what he calls a conscientious objection from parents, schools should accommodate different beliefs.

"We are not pushing any religious denomination, although please bear in mind that some 40 per cent of all public schools in Jamaica are still either owned or sponsored by Christian denominations," he said. "So this is stitched into the fabric of our history and we must recognise that it has deep significance to how we perceive ourselves. There will be no rush in Jamaica to move from our perception of who we are, where we come from, and who redeemed us."

In a controversial article published in The Gleaner in 2013, youth development and human-rights advocate, Jaevion Nelson, a weekly columnist, argued that devotions in schools were problematic, claiming that it is impossible to cater to all beliefs and the many Christian perspectives.

According to him, the Government and school administrators should not force children to pray to a Christian God, an activity that ignores one's right to religious freedom and the faiths of minority groups.

The issue of devotions in schools was also raised in public discussions after the Jamaica Urban Transit Company ruled that preaching on its buses was violating regulations.

Freedom of religion

In 2013, a report by the International Human & Ethical Union found that Jamaica was the only country in the Caribbean that upheld the freedoms of religion and expression and showed no discrimination against non-religious groups.

According to that report, most of Jamaica's religious schools are affiliated with either the Catholic Church or Protestant denominations.

There is also at least one Jewish school and at least two schools run by the Islamic Council of Jamaica.

Meanwhile, the National Parent-Teacher Association of Jamaica said it has not settled on an official position on whether schools should make it mandatory for students to participate in religious activities.

However, the president of the association, Everton Hannam, said schools should not make it compulsory.

According to him, the plurality of the society alone would make it difficult for schools to have such a stance.

However, Hannam is cautioning that parents and children must take into consideration the school's culture before deciding to attend.