Private religious schools’ beliefs in the balance as landmark case goes to court

The ability of religious private schools to implement their policies might hang in the balance as a case on whether they can require learners and parents to abide by their rules goes to court next week.

The Johannesburg high court, sitting as an equality court, will on 19 January hear the case and its decision will have a major impact on the autonomy of all private religious schools and their rights to establish admission and related policies specific to their religion, according to legal advocacy group Freedom of Religion South Africa (For SA), which is acting as a friend of the court in the matter.

The case originated between a private Christian school and a Zulu learner who attended the private institution wearing an isiphandla – a traditional ceremonial goat-skin bracelet that connects a young person to their ancestors. Traditionally the bracelet must be worn until it breaks off from the wrist on its own.

According to For SA, the school is arguing that the wearing of an isiphandla is a religious practice that conflicts with its biblical ethos and beliefs. As a result, it sent the learner home with his study material, only to be allowed back when the bracelet fell off. 

Arguing that the school discriminated against their son “on grounds of culture”, the parents took the matter to court. They are demanding R300 000 in damages. 

“Should the court decide against the school, it would set a dangerous precedent for all private religious schools in the country, who could then be forced to act against their religious convictions and beliefs,” For SA’s executive director Michael Swain said.

He argued that while wearing an isiphandla would be allowed in public schools, private religious schools are different. 

“Private religious schools are specifically established to provide education within the context of certain religious beliefs, practices and ethos. Parents, learners and staff join these schools precisely for this reason,” Swain said.

“This would completely undermine the very reason for these schools’ existence and goes directly against the constitutional right to establish and maintain private religious schools”.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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