Tue | Dec 5, 2023

Peter Espeut | Freedom of religion, or not

Published:Friday | September 22, 2023 | 12:06 AM
In this 2019 photo, Carolyn Trumble, mission education promoter of the Mary Knoll Missioners, Los Altos, California, gives a motivational talk to the junior school at morning devotions at the Mount Alvernia High School, Montego Bay.
In this 2019 photo, Carolyn Trumble, mission education promoter of the Mary Knoll Missioners, Los Altos, California, gives a motivational talk to the junior school at morning devotions at the Mount Alvernia High School, Montego Bay.

Church-State relations in Jamaica are headed down a rocky road. And it would not be the first time. In the days of slavery the plantocrats in the Jamaica House of Assembly required ministers of religion to obtain licences to preach, or face jail time. Many Baptist and Methodist ministers were refused licences; some were jailed; others were tarred and feathered.

The plantocrats were against churches teaching enslaved adults and their children how to read and write. Up to the time the House of Assembly went out of existence in 1866, the Jamaican government had not built even one primary or high school. In those days, the government operated in the best interests of big business – mostly plantations at the time – which required mostly unskilled labour.

Jamaicans must ever be grateful to the churches and trusts which established scores of schools which today form the basis of Jamaica’s education system. When in the middle of the last century the government wished to expand the availability of education, they turned to the churches to establish partnerships: the church would operate their schools embodying their ethos, and the government would provide funding. It was a mutually respectful relationship, and a mutually beneficial one. The best-performing primary and high schools in Jamaica are owned and operated by churches and trusts; government schools lag far behind. Were the churches not to have the right to operate schools, and to embody their ethos therein, Jamaica’s education system would have little to commend it.

Last month – without consultation with the other owners of schools – the Andrew Holness administration issued Guidelines for Devotions in Schools wherein they tell the churches how they are to conduct prayer and worship in their schools. The word “draft” does not appear anywhere in the document, neither does the document invite comment; the guidelines are settled policy.


I accept that the Government can prescribe how prayer is to be conducted in the schools they own, or they may decide to have none at all! But can the Government tell Calabar High School or Meadowbrook High School – good Baptist and Methodist institutions – how to worship God?

“A core principle woven into these guidelines is that of non-denominational practice. Devotions should serve to unite, rather than divide, by focusing on values and principles that are universally applicable, transcending specific religious affiliations.”

According to government guidelines, Ardenne High School will be in breach if it conducts school devotions in the tradition of the Church of God. All Jamaican schools – whether church-owned or government-owned – must daily practise some indeterminate bland colourless non-denominational worship.

What is the mischief these guidelines are designed to address?

“Since the establishment of a formal system of education, schools, especially faith-based ones, have been given autonomy to determine how devotions will be used to influence the spiritual atmosphere of their institution; some with admirable outcomes and others, questionable.”

Autonomy is problematic, and is to be reduced. Follow these guidelines and questionable outcomes will disappear, and all devotional outcomes will be admirable! Really?

The guidelines dictate: “Devotions must not last for more than 15 to 30 minutes – except ONE day per week where it can go on for 30 to 45 minutes” (Emphasis in the original).

Some denominations hold school worship services which last almost two hours. Some hold days of prayer and recollection from morning until afternoon. Does the government have the right to limit the amount of prayer in church schools?

A most interesting part of the guidelines is Appendix 2:

“The list below are activities that must be prohibited at devotions at schools.”

I choose the following three items on the list:

• Ablution

• Drinking, eating or rubbing on of any substance

• Display and/or worshipping of idols, symbols and rituals

Christian worship unavoidably involves rituals; even to clasp one’s hands in prayer is a ritual. Authentic Christian symbols include the cross or crucifix, and the Bible. We all agree that idols should be banned, but is the government here prohibiting the display of the cross and the Bible at these non-denominational school devotions?

Christian rituals

Washing with water (ablutions), anointing (rubbing) with oil, and eating bread and drinking wine are authentic Christian rituals. On what basis does the government prohibit these actions in all Jamaican public schools?

I guess it is in the DNA of politicians to wish to control everything. I suppose that the government will argue that since it pays the piper, it can call the tune: since it provides some funding for church-owned schools it can prescribe what does and does not take place there. The church must be subject to the state!

This action of the government places the church and the Jamaican state on a collision course. Despite ongoing dialogue between the Ecumenical Education Committee (the churches and trusts which own schools in Jamaica) and the Ministry of Education, no consultation took place before the guidelines were distributed.

And all this despite the existence of a Consultation Code of Practice for the Public Sector issued by the Cabinet Office in 2018.

Fortunately, the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms in the Jamaican Constitution guarantees all Jamaicans freedom of religion, and guarantees churches certain rights. Jamaicans can choose their religion, or can choose to opt out of religion altogether; they can choose to send their children to a church-owned school where religious practices take place, or to a secular school to be free from religion.

Government-owned schools will have to comply, but church schools may feel justified in ignoring these Guidelines for Devotions in Schools.

Peter Espeut is a Roman Catholic deacon involved in education. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com