Secular Society

Discrimination in Public Schools

Reporting Religious Discrimination in Public Schools


South Africa is a democratic society with a diverse population reflecting of different cultures, languages and religions. This should be particularly evident in our public schools where no particular religious ethos should be dominant over and suppress others.

The South African Constitution and Bill of Rights states that South Africa is not a religious state with a single state religion nor a secular state with a strict separation between religion and state. Rather, the state is promoting a tolerant cooperative model that accepts our rich heritage, and the possibility of creative interaction between schools and faith, whilst protecting our young people from religious discrimination or coercion.

Public schools have a duty to promote the core values of our constitutional and democratic society. These core values include equity, tolerance, multilingualism, openness, accountability, and social integrity. Religion in education must be consistent with these values, and the practices of schools may be tested against these values.

  • Equity: The education process in general must aim at the development of a national democratic culture with respect for the value of all of our people’s diverse cultural, religious and linguistic traditions.
  • Tolerance: Religion in education must contribute to the advancement of inter-religious toleration and interpersonal respect among adherents of different religious or secular worldviews in a shared civil society.
  • Diversity: In the interest of advancing informed respect for diversity, educational institutions have a responsibility for promoting multi-religious knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of religions in South Africa and the world.
  • Openness: Schools, together with the broader society, play a vital role in cultural formation and transmission, and educational institutions must promote a spirit of openness in which there shall be no overt or covert attempt to indoctrinate learners into any particular belief or religion.
  • Accountability : As systems of human accountability, religions cultivate moral values and ethical commitments that can be recognised as resources for learning and as vital contributions to nation building.
  • Social Honour: While honouring the linguistic, cultural, religious or secular backgrounds of all learners, educational institutions cannot allow the overt or covert denigration of any religion or secular world-view.

The Department of Basic Education (DBE) policy is neither negative nor hostile towards any religion or faith and does not discriminate against anyone. Rather it displays a profound respect towards religious faith and affirms the importance of the study of religion and religious observances (RO). 

Public schools have a duty to ensure the equal rights of all learners and that their religious views are recognised and respected. Schools should, therefore, engage in religious education (RE), rather than religious instruction (RI), and ought not to promote one religion over another.

See: National Policy on Religion and Education published 12 September 2003

The South African Secular Society (SASS) believes, however, that too many public schools and School Governing Bodies (SGBs) do not protect the equal religious rights of all their learners and do not live up to our core constitutional and democratic values. This can be seen in some cases at schools in terms of selective implementation of the curriculum, the schools’ ethos and mission statements as well as various school practices. Many public schools still openly include and promote religious rules. Religious posters, slogans and various forms of media for only a single faith are still prevalent in many public schools. Learners are subjected to the religious observances of the majority view or the view espoused by the SGB, without any genuine choice in the matter.

It is with this in mind that SASS is helping parents to better understand what their rights and options are and what public schools must and can do. This is particularly important if a parent feels that a school is discriminating against their child. The aim of this guide is not to propose banning religious practices in schools, but to explain about protecting children from religious discrimination and coercion in a public school context.

Here are some of the issues that have already been enforced upon schools by the DBE after investigations:

Schools must remove all outward signs if they depict just one religion. This includes :

  • Mission statements and ethos;
  • School rules that include and/or promote religious rules;
  • Website information;
  • Information boards inside and outside a school;
  • School documents, and
  • Posters and wall inscriptions.

In pursuit of equality, schools must support learners of non-believing parents, or learners who themselves disbelieve in any religion in particular, as well as followers of other religions.  Furthermore, schools must afford learners the option of opting out of specific religious observances, or enabling them to practice their own religious observances free from coercion, humiliation, or discrimination.

Complaints Hierarchy

You are advised to write to the relevant officials in the following order, so as to avoid having your case thrown out on the grounds of being unprocedural:

  1. Write to the Principal. If the principal does not remedy the matter then,
  2. Write to the SGB. If the SGB does not remedy the matter then,
  3. Write to the District Office, If the District Office does not remedy the matter then,
  4. Write to the Provincial HOD or SG If the Provincial HOD does not remedy the matter then,
  5. Write to with the Provincial MEC If the Provincial MEC does not remedy the matter then,
  6. Write to the DBE in Pretoria, If the DBE does not remedy the matter then,
  7. Write to the Human Rights Council (HRC)

The objective is to get your complaint to the DBE District Office (step 3).  Do not be discouraged if the school principal (step 1) or the SGB (step 2) ignores your email.

DBE District Office is obliged to allocate an inspector to investigate your allegations.  The inspector will then ask the school if they accept or dispute your allegations. That is why it is so important to have specific detailed allegations like the outward signs that depict just one religion as it can’t be easily disputed. The inspector will then investigate the disputed allegations, sometimes in person by visiting the school. If your allegation relates to practices, then you need proof of such practices, e.g. a recording of an authority figure instructing your child to cooperate with a religious ceremony, or, a recording of such in a school assembly, etc.

Precedent Case

Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie v Laerskool Randhart and Others (29847/2014) [2017] ZAGPJHC 160

One of the principal issues in this case was whether a public school was entitled to hold itself out as a ‘single faith’ or ‘exclusive faith’ school (e.g. a Christian School). The Court answered this question in the negative. In short, it was held unequivocally that neither the Constitution nor the South African Schools Act entitled a public school to hold itself out as one that has adopted one religion to the exclusion of all others.

The Court determined to make the following declaratory order with respect to this particular issue:

  1. It is declared that it offends s.7 of the Schools Act, 84 of 1996 for a public school-
  1. to promote or allow its staff to promote that it, as a public school, adheres to only one or predominantly only one religion to the exclusion of others; and 
  2. to hold out that it promotes the interests of any one religion in favour of others.

The practical effect of this Court order is that a public school may not hold itself out (or brand itself) as an ‘exclusive faith’ school that endorses, promotes or practices a particular and/or exclusionary religious ethos or culture.

Register your complaint

Register here and SASS will email you a email template that you can edit.

    Please keep SASS updated on the progress of your complaint especially if there was an intervention and recommendations or if you have to escalate to the DBE in Pretoria (step 6) at national government level.

    How is this different to OGOD?

    Organisasie vir Godsdienste–Onderrig en Demokrasie (OGOD) was initial and instrumental in the landmark case which paved the way forward for religion in schools. OGOD also assists parents and concerned citizens to report schools which transgresses the guidelines laid out in the court verdict. You can register an anonymous warning to a school and request them to rectify issues pointed out in your application done via the OGOD Jericho submission platform.

    The SASS project aims to assist parents and guardians the opportunity to understand the full process involved in reporting transgressions. Whereby it follows the procedures outlined by the Department of Education which compels them that they MUST do an investigation and report on the school once you have tried to remedy the situation and the school is still reluctant to engage or remedy a reported issue.

    It allows to cut out unnecessary delays or getting sent from pillar to post when working with a government department. It is aimed to assist in ensuring the school does take notice of the severity of the matter.

    Complaints Procedure

    Before complaining, you need to identify the specific event which caused the harm and which is believed to be an instance of religious coercion or discrimination. For example:

    • Display of outward religious signs that depict only one religion;
    • Classroom practices, with opening, and closing of the day, should not include observances that your child is forced to be involved in; (ask for exemption);
    • School Assembly days should not include observances which your child is forced to be involved in (ask for exemption or removal of those observances);
    • End of year Christian Christmas shows or Easter celebrations: The order of the programme must be swapped around, so that the scripture reading / prayer / Christmas carols happen at the end of the programme, in order to allow non-believers and followers of other religions to opt out by leaving early;
    • Bullying by teachers or learners for different beliefs must cease;
    • Mandatory learning of school hymns, songs or prayers for a specific religion must cease;
    • Enforced religious content learning, particularly when it only covers one belief, must cease.

    Please note that SASS cannot directly assist in this regard but we do want to know about cases and outcomes, so as to monitor and further develop this guide.

    Applicable laws and policy

    SASS did notice that different provincial District Offices react differently, with Gauteng and the Western Cape reacting more helpfully in general.

    This section of the report deals with policy and the legislative framework related to the subject.

    The Constitution

    The Constitution is the supreme law of South Africa. Every law, rule, policy or regulation is subordinate to the Constitution and may not conflict with its provisions.

    In terms of Section 15:
    Freedom of religion, belief and opinion.
    1. Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion.
    2. Religious observances may be conducted at state or state-aided institutions, provided that-
      1. those observances follow rules made by the appropriate public authorities;
      2. they are conducted on an equitable basis; and
      3. attendance at them is free and voluntary.’’
    In terms of Section 7 (2):
    • The State must respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights

    The South African Schools Act 84 of 1996, As Amended.
    In terms of Section 7:
    Freedom of conscience and religion at public schools

    • Subject to the Constitution and any applicable provincial law, religious observances may be conducted at a public school under rules issued by the governing body if such observances are conducted on an equitable basis and attendance at them by learners and members of staff is free and voluntary.