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  • David Hines

No atheists in Jacinda’s team of five million. Religious leaders want state to promote their faiths

David Hines August 8 2021

Main points

1. After a year of waiting I have full details of a request from a group of religious leaders to the Prime Minister, sent in November 2019.

2. It shows a very one-sided list of wishes for religious studies to be included in New Zealand state schools.

3. I’ve had the list of their recommendations for some months, but they didn’t make sense till I also found out which religions the leaders represented. The Ombudsman helped me find these out.

4. No non-religious people were consulted in this process, except for myself, but there is no record of this in the papers released in answer to my OIA request, first made in July 2020

Ms Ardern at lunch with Christian leaders three days before the Christchurch shootings in March 2019. Picture from Catholic News. A similar group wrote to the PM about religion in schools later that year, but for some unknown reason their names were kept under wraps.

Ombudsman intervenes: Prime minister releases names of her religious advisers

The Prime Minister has agreed to release the names of her religious advisory team, following my complaint to the Ombudsman. Their letter to the PM (November 2019) reads like a rave about religions, rather than a considered attempt to include religious studies in the syllabus for state primary schools.

The leaders' requests

The letter, obtained under the Official Information Act late 2020 says:

“The many faith and interfaith groups currently active in Aotearoa provide a wonderful array of education programmes for those interested…” and goes on to say these groups cannot afford to spread their treasures throughout the community, so the Government should do it through state schools.

They favour education about religions but make no mention of non-religious people or their wishes.

They affirm “the nation’s Christian history and heritage” but make no mention of its secular heritage, which led to secular schools in 1877.

They favour optional religious studies in Years 11-13 (which I personally favour), but give no reason why classes for years 1-10 should not also be optional.

Church leaders turn blind eye to Bible in Schools classes

They make no mention of current religious instruction programmes in state schools (biased Christian currently in hundreds of state primary schools). These are part of any balanced package about religion in state schools: Minister of Education Chris Hipkins has suggested religious instruction programmes should be replaced by religious education. However there is no indication the Prime Minister or her religious leaders were even aware of this issue. The dozens of Jewish people I have spoken to all insist that Bible in Schools must be removed so why was this concern missing from the advice to Ms Ardern?

Names and religions kept under wraps

The Prime Minister’s Office initially sent me a redacted version with no names or positions of the 24 signatories, billed as “religious leaders”. The explanation was it was to protect the privacy of individuals. I objected to the Ombudsman that these signatories were acting in official capacities and that there is no way NZ Citizens can assess these suggestions unless they know whose views they are. (I found it hard to believe religious leaders would not want to have their names made public. Isn’t that what leaders do?

Christians dominate in prime minister’s religious advice team

Well, with the list finally in front of me (after a 12-month wait) I am not surprised to find that the largest proportion of them, seven, were Christians, nor that there were two Buddhists, two Sikhs and one Baha’i.

Ian Ardern (uncle of the Prime Minister) is Pacific Area President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Muslims not strongly represented in PM’s team

There were a Muslim representative, an advisor to the Federation of Islamic Associations, not its President. I suspect from other information, that NZ Muslims are not unanimous on the issues of religious instruction or religious education. Several schools over the past few years have hosted religious instruction Muslim style, to balance their Christian RI. It could be that Muslims are torn between the two ways forward: (a) keep Christian religious instruction, going, and get Muslim promotion programmes into the business as well, or (b) drop all biased religious instruction and have unbiased instruction about all religions instead..

There was a Hindu representative, who had earlier given evidence for the Secular Education Network case in the High Court. (The case was withdrawn before it went to court.)

Other signatories did not appear to be religious leaders as such: they included religious charities, a chaplain and three members of the Religious Diversity Trust.

No atheists in Jacinda’s team

I was angry that no atheists were on this list, considering three of us from the NZ Association of Rationalists and Humanists applied to be associated with the Religious Diversity Council when it was formed, and were repeatedly stalled.

I personally was interviewed by RDC leader Jocelyn Armstrong mid-2019, before she had a discussion with Ms Ardern about the idea. However my contribution was not included in the list of communications between RDC and the government. I understand it was a Zoom meeting.

The next step: religious studies professor conducts survey

I don’t blame these individuals for expressing their wishes. I blame the Religious Diversity Centre for packaging them as religious leaders and giving them an exclusive right to give advice to the Prime Minister, and the Prime Minister for swallowing that advice without question. It was referred to a cabinet committee for action, and this led to the subject being reviewed by religious studies professor Paul Morris mid-2020.

I have also been trying for a year to get hold of his report. So far without success

This is very bad news for all of us who want state schools to be secular, and to treat all religions and philosophies as equal. The Prime Minister has lost touch with her team of five million. Two point three million of us are non-religious and have been repeatedly downplayed in consultations with the government.

However some of us, including myself, were included in Prof Morris’ survey. Sara Passmore from the Humanists’ Association of NZ was interviewed by Prof Morris.

Want to read the religious leaders letter in full?

Here's the link:

Another OIA request has been released. Watch this space

I have now received a reply from Education Minister Chris Hipkins for a copy of Paul Morris’s report. He has said no, but has answered half a dozen of my other requests.

Here's a link to that reply, received on 21 July 2021.

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