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SAHRC Welcomes Court Judgment Promoting Religious Diversity in Schools


Attention: Editors and Reporters
Friday, 30 June 2017

The South African Human Rights Commission (Commission) welcomes the judgment handed down by the South Gauteng High Court on the 28th June 2017, in which the promotion of one predominant religion in public schools was found to be contrary to section 7 of the South African Schools Act.
In terms of the South African Schools Act, religious observances may be conducted at a public school, provided that such observances are conducted on an equitable basis and that attendance to them is free and voluntary. This is in line with section 15(2) of the Constitution, which guarantees the right of all persons to conduct religious observations at state or state-aided institutions, including at schools.

The Commission has, on numerous occasions, dealt with cultural and religious practice and observation in schools, and emphasises that the enjoyment of diverse culture and religion is a fundamental right in terms of the Constitution. The ability of individuals to freely and openly express one’s culture or religion is therefore integral to the realisation of human dignity. However, this right includes the right not to be subjected to indirect pressure to participate in religious observances which are not in line with one’s own beliefs or to inhibit manifestation of religious belief. Moreover, the right is closely linked to the right to privacy, and freedom to choose whether or not to disclose one’s religious beliefs.

Schools provide an essential platform for social cohesion and integration of diverse opinions and beliefs. Therefore, they must aim to foster an environment built upon a celebration and encouragement of diverse beliefs on an equitable basis.

“Importantly, the judgment does not prohibit religious observations from being practiced at schools, but merely limits the ability of public schools from adopting one religion to the exclusion of others. Ultimately, the judgment affirms the vision of a democratic society in which diversity is not merely tolerated, but celebrated.” says Commissioner André Gaum, whose focus area is education.

Although the practice of religion by public schools has been declared in conflict with the South African Schools Act, and indirectly, the values espoused by the Constitution, the judgment should not be viewed as a limitation on the exercise of the fundamental right and freedom of religion, opinion and belief. Instead, the judgment espouses the need for a sensitive balance between exercising this right, and the promotion of the broader ideals of equality and diversity within society.

It is apparent from this judgment, that there is also a need for the Commission to work with the Department of Basic Education to ensure that all school policies and codes of conduct are compliant with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.   The Commission will therefore request that the Department of Basic Education to ensure that all schools’ codes of conduct for learners, comply with the Constitution.  


Issued by the South African Human Rights Commission

Gail Smith – Spokesperson Tel: 0609883792 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Gushwell Brooks – Communications Co-ordinator Tel: 082 645 8573 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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The Human Rights Commission is the national institution established to support constitutional democracy. It is committed to promote respect for, observance of and protection of human rights for everyone without fear or favour.

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