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Minister rejects calls to abolish 'coercive' worship in schools

No change needed: Diallo Rabain the minister of education (File photograph by Blaire Simmons)

Diallo Rabain, the Minister of Education, has rejected calls to abolish “coerced” collective worship in schools.

Mr Rabain said he supported legislation which dictates that schools “shall begin with collective worship on the part of all pupils in attendance at the school”.

He spoke out after pressure group Social Justice Bermuda (SJB) said the law was “a breach of students’ freedom of religion and belief”.

In a statement released earlier this month, SJB said: “The Education Act, as it stands, is an anachronism – a remnant of the theocratic and authoritarian nightmare of the British Empire at its might.

“It has no place in the 21st Century, here in Bermuda or anywhere else. School or teacher- directed worship is inherently coercive and oppressive.

“Public monies should not be spent on forcing theology on our children. If parents wish their children to engage in regular religious practice, the place for that is in their home and in their places of worship, not the Bermuda public school system.”

The group stressed that it was not opposed to students learning about religion or attending collective worship sessions, but that it should not be “coerced“.

But at a press conference yesterday, Mr Rabain said the 1996 Act did not need amending.

“I support the legislation as it’s been written and I believe it covers all of the issues that have been mentioned recently in the press,” he said.

“I also recognise that the legislation does provide an option for any parent to exclude your child from collective worship.

“I also recognise that the legislation states explicitly that collective worship shall not be distinctive in any particular religious group, and with that I’m satisfied that the legislation does what it’s supposed to do and our schools have the autonomy to exercise within the limits of that legislation as they choose.”

In its statement, SJB pointed out that, although the law states that “collective worship shall not be distinctive of any particular religious group”, in practice, prayer sessions during school assemblies were “dominated by explicitly Christian theology”.

Asked to address that concern, Mr Rabain replied: “If there is an issue with collective worship we will listen to our parents, we will listen to our students and they are free to make contact with me at the ministry and the department.”

The group has the backing of the United Nations, which has been calling for a ban on mandatory collective worship in public schools since 2016.

The UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child said students should not need parental permission to opt out of prayer sessions.

Currently, the act allows for students to opt out of prayer sessions if they have parental permission – but the Minister of Education must be notified and satisfied that the student is attending worship elsewhere.

Asked to comment on that view, Mr Rabain said: “If there is an issue with any of our schools they are free to make contact with the department of education to express their issues.

“Any parent that has issues with the legislation as it’s written are free to make contact with the department of education and express that and we will deal with that from the persons who attend the school.”

Social Justice Bermuda did not respond to requests from this newspaper for reaction to Mr Rabain’s comments.

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Published February 18, 2021 at 11:16 am (Updated February 18, 2021 at 11:16 am)

Minister rejects calls to abolish 'coercive' worship in schools

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