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Campaigners: Take mandatory prayer out of school assemblies

Oppression: Social Justice Bermuda argues that religious assemblies should not be held in public schools (Photograph supplied)

A pressure group is calling for religion to be banned from public school assemblies, claiming it is a coercive form of oppression that breaches the rights of children.

Social Justice Bermuda also argued that students who exercise their right to opt out of attending school assemblies often face “isolation, harassment and bullying … often led by teachers and principals”.

In a statement released yesterday, SJB said that, under outdated laws, schools must start the day with a period of collective worship – invariably Christian in nature – which constitutes “a breach of students’ freedom of religion and belief”.

“Assemblies, when well structured, serve an important role in promoting the ethical and social development of students,” the statement said.

“However, acts of worship are neither necessary nor desirable methods of achieving this.

“By normalising theistic beliefs, and Christianity in particular, these acts of collective worship are exclusionary and have led to the isolation, harassment and bullying of those students who are not Christian or theists.

“Worse, these acts of isolation, harassment and bullying are often led by teachers and principals – the very people who should be looking after our students and encouraging their intellectual development and ensuring a safe learning environment.”

The group acknowledged that students can opt out of assemblies if parents grant their permission and confirm that the student attends worship elsewhere – but that this could lead to them being “othered”.

The statement said: “Many students face exclusion, bullying and harassment should they elect for this option.”

The group stressed that it did not oppose students engaging in collective worship voluntarily. It acknowledged that assemblies were an important part of the school day, but added they should be inclusive and foster a sense of community.

“Certain interpretations of Christianity are given prominence, leading to non-Christian or non-heterosexual students being particularly vulnerable to bullying,” the statement said.

“Schools should be institutions that are respectful and inclusive of all students, regardless of their religious beliefs or non-belief. Public monies should not be spent on forcing theology on our children.”

The statement went on to argue that the public school system was not the place for children to engage in religious practices, and that the law enforcing it was “a remnant of the theocratic and authoritarian nightmare of the British Empire at its might“.

The statement also claimed that the UN Committee on the Rights of the Children had called for laws mandating collective worship in schools to be scrapped “as it is a breach of the rights of children”.

“SJB agrees and calls on Bermuda to be progressive in the service of its children, rather than awaiting imperial action,” the statement said.

It claimed that students at one public school must stand to attention up to four times each day while a prayer is read out over the school’s PA system.

“Coercive collective worship in the Bermuda public school system is a social injustice disguised as tradition and celebrated as culture,” the statement said.

“It contributes to injustices against non-Christians, non-theists, and LGBTQ youth.

“Furthermore, this pattern of coercion contributes to learnt behaviours of submission in later life which can help reinforce inequality and injustice.

“Simply put, no student should be coerced into collective worship or face harassment, isolation and bullying as a result of such collective worship. Schools should be safe places for our children and this form of oppression, however cloaked, must be removed.”

The group said that worship could be replaced by “guidelines for inclusive community activities”.

It suggested that religious leaders could make guest appearances at assemblies but they should do so only occasionally, and be representative of all religions.

“What about morals and ethics? It is not necessary to coerce students into collective worship to teach students lessons about ethics and community. Formal worship is neither necessary nor conducive – when coerced – to spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development and inclusion.”

The Royal Gazette has asked for comment from the Ministry of Education on SJB’s statement but no response was received by press time last night.

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Published February 02, 2021 at 12:20 pm (Updated February 02, 2021 at 12:20 pm)

Campaigners: Take mandatory prayer out of school assemblies

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