What is the “Schools Case” about, and how can Christians help?

by Daniela Ellerbeck
11 September 2014

Christians in South Africa were up in arms this week (and rightly so) when news broke of the court case instituted by a secular group against six “Christian schools”, in the Johannesburg High Court. The group is effectively asking the Court to remove and ban Christianity from the schools. (See for e.g. https://www.dieburger.com/nuus/2014-09-02-christenwaardes-moet-uit-skole; and https://www.netwerk24.com/nuus/2014-09-02-haal-god-uit-skole).

The case, which can have severe ramifications not only for the six schools involved but for all public schools in South Africa, has been described as a “watershed case” for religious freedom in South Africa.

As an organisation that works to protect and promote religious freedom in South Africa, FOR SA answers a few Frequently Asked Questions about the case.

What is the case about?

A secular group by the name of Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie (OGOD), has instituted legal proceedings in the Johannesburg High Court against six public schools (four in Gauteng, and two in Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape).

While the schools admit learners of all faiths, the schools are unashamedly Christian in their ethos and values. Participation in Christian activities are voluntary however, and no learner is forced against his/her will (or the will of his/her parents) to participate therein.

In its application to court, OGOD is essentially asking the Court to:

  1. Declare that it is a breach of the National Policy on Religion and Education and unconstitutional, for any public school to adhere or promote a particular religion; and
  2. Order that the six schools be prohibited from adhering or promoting Christianity in any form.

Are other faiths affected by this case?

Should the Court find, as OGOD asks it to do, that it is unlawful for any public school to adhere or promote a particular religion, public schools that adhere or promote other faiths (e.g. Muslim or Jewish schools) will be affected by the judgment as well.

It is very clear however that OGOD’s aim is to remove Christianity from schools. That this is so, is apparent from the fact that the legal proceedings have been brought against “Christian schools” only and not against schools that adhere or promote other faiths also.

Why is this an important case?

The case can potentially have severe ramifications for freedom of religion and the Gospel in South Africa.

Should OGOD be successful, the effect will be that teachers and learners will be silenced from speaking or testifying about God in a school context. They will not be allowed to read the Bible or pray (either individually, or together with other Christians) at school. Creationism, as a biblical teaching, will be banned from schools. Learners will not be allowed to participate in Christian activities at school, and Christian societies will also be banned. Doors will be shut to pastors and Christian ministries working into schools.

In a nutshell, our schools will become sterile environments to the seed of the Gospel – this, when statistics have shown that between 80 – 85% of people make a commitment to Jesus Christ before the age of 18!

Doesn’t the Constitution protect religious freedom?

Yes, section 15 of the Constitution protects freedom of religion as a fundamental human right. The section also provides for the right of public schools to conduct religious observances, provided certain conditions are met.

The challenge however is that the Constitution, while protecting religious freedom, also protects other freedoms and rights (such as the right not to be discriminated against on various grounds). These “other freedoms and rights” often come into conflict with the right of freedom of religion. It is the duty of the Court to balance / weigh these rights against each other and decide which right should take pre-eminence in a particular instance. In practice, this means that one right is protected at the expense of another.

Unfortunately, if regard is had to recent cases where freedom of religion had to be weighed against other fundamental rights, it appears as if other rights are often protected at the expense of freedom of religion. In other words, while freedom of religion is protected in theory, in reality freedom of religion is frequently coming off second best.

The “schools case” will be a tough one, but not an impossible one! We trust that, with God’s guidance and wisdom, the legal team acting for the schools will be able to present strong legal arguments that will persuade the Court to protect freedom of religion in our schools.

What happens now?

On Friday last week, the schools met with FEDSAS (the Federation of School Governing Bodies of South African Schools) and their legal team to decide on their response to the case and discuss the way forward. The outcome of the meeting was that the schools are in agreement that they will be opposing the case. The next step is that by this Friday, the schools have to give written notification of their intention to oppose the case.

Thereafter, they have 15 working days to deliver Affidavits answering the case against them. Given the complexity of the legal arguments involved, the schools will in all likelihood ask for an extension of this period. OGOD will then have a final opportunity to reply to the schools’ Affidavits. Thereafter, the parties will present their legal arguments, first in writing and then orally, to the Court. It is also very likely that the case may end up in the Constitutional Court. It may therefore take several months for the case to be heard and finally decided.

A number of churches and organisations (including FOR SA) have already indicated that they would like to join the matter as Amici Curiae (“Friends of the Court”). The thinking at this stage is to possibly create an umbrella type organisation who can act on behalf of all these churches and organisations in court. For more information, churches and/or organisations are welcome to contact FOR SA who will put them in contact with Teresa Conradie of the Institute for Public Justice (IPJ) who is coordinating the efforts in this regard. (For FOR SA’s contact details, click here).

How is FOR SA supporting the case?

FOR SA is an organisation that works to protect and promote the religious freedom of Christians in South Africa by serving as a voice, on behalf of the Church, to government and society on issues affecting our religious freedom. Over the last few months, FOR SA has also assisted a number of pastors, Christian ministries and Christian businesses who have come under fire for Christian beliefs.

As such, FOR SA has offered its assistance and support to the six schools, FEDSAS and the legal team representing the schools. In particular FOR SA has offered help in mobilising the Church and Christians in South Africa to support the schools, and also with the preparation of the court case that is very likely to end up in the Constitutional Court. Should it appear necessary and beneficial to the case, FOR SA will also join itself as Amicus Curiae (“Friend of the Court”) in the matter, as it already has in another case concerning religious freedom that is currently pending in the Bellville Equality Court. FOR SA will also remain in contact with the schools, FEDSAS and the legal team and communicate any developments in the case to churches and the Christian public. (In this regard, FOR SA has already been asked to speak about the issue on Radio Tygerberg and CCFM).

The “schools case” confirms what FOR SA has been saying over the last few months, namely that there is an escalating threat to the freedom of Christians in South Africa to believe, preach and live their lives according to the Word of God. The case highlights the importance for pastors and Christian leaders to (at no cost) sign up to FOR SA, thus enabling us to speak on their behalf to government on issues affecting our religious freedom and the autonomy of the Church. (To sign up, click here).

On a previous issue relating to religious freedom, FOR SA was able to rally the signed support of leaders representing 12 million leaders in South Africa. If ever there was a time to stand united and act decisively, it is now! Together, we can make a difference.

How can churches and Christians support the case?

  • Through PRAYER. Pray for the “Christian schools” and their legal team, for OGOD as well as for the Judge who will be hearing the case. James 5:16 tells us that “[t]he prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective”. Let’s bring the court case before our Lord and trust Him for the victory – for the sake of keeping our faith free in South Africa, and ultimately for His glory.
  • Through SOWING FINANCIALLY. A great deal of time, effort and legal costs are involved in a case such as this – particularly if the case goes all the way to the Constitutional Court. Let’s give the schools (and ultimately, the case of Christianity) the best chance before our courts by contributing to the legal costs involved. Every contribution, great and small, is appreciated and helps to keep our faith free. For more information about donations, click here.
  • Through SIGNING UP to FOR SA. As an organisation, FOR SA specifically works to protect and promote the freedom of Christians in South Africa to believe, preach and live their lives according to the Word of God. Encourage your pastor to sign up (at no cost) to FOR SA, thus enabling us to speak on your behalf to government and society on issues affecting our religious freedom. (To sign up, click here). Finally, follow us on Facebook at FreedomOfReligionSA for the latest updates on religious freedom issues.

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