Analysis: The dos and don’ts of religion in public schools

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In the absence of written guidelines or rules, it appears that school leaders have broad discretion in terms of the promotion or display of religion within Cayman Islands government schools.

In regard to the teaching of Religious Education as a ‘mandatory subject’, however, there is a national framework in place modelled on the English National Curriculum.

An alleged incident at Red Bay Primary School in early May has sparked questions about the role (and regulation) of religion in public schools.

(The investigation into the allegations was still ongoing as of 21 June.)

Broad mandate, few rules

The Cayman Current submitted an open records request to the Ministry of Education, seeking “Rules, regulations, guidance, guidelines or other advice on the teaching, promotion, dissemination or displays of religion, faith or spirituality in government schools.”

In response, they directed us to the 2016 Education Law, which states, “Non-denominational religious worship and instruction shall be given in every Government school.”

The Law names ‘religion’ as a ‘mandatory subject’ alongside literacy, numeracy, science, information and communications technology, the arts, physical education, civics, and the history and culture of the Cayman Islands.

The Law also contains a provision protecting parents and guardians from penalties for keeping students out of school on a day that “is recognized as a religious holiday by the religious denomination to which the student belongs”.

In addition, the 2017 Education Regulations state that when determining the reasonableness of a disciplinary penalty imposed by a school on a student, one of the factors that should be taken into account is “any religious requirements affecting the student” (as well as age, special needs or disabilities).

There are no other mentions of religion or faith in the Law or Regulations, meaning a lack of mandates or restrictions on, for example, if or how often prayers are said, what faiths are represented, the types of ceremonies that could be conducted and by whom, etc.

Presumably, actions would be limited by other laws and regulations, such child safeguarding practices, for example.

Religious Education purposes, topics, goals

In regard to the teaching of religion, the Ministry provided a programme of study for primary school religious education in Key Stages 1 and 2 dated January 2021, modelled after the English curriculum.

The document details the purposes of religious education, topics covered and expectations for students.

Placing Christianity at the centre of religious education, the document states, “Christianity has shaped the history and traditions of the Cayman Islands and its people and continues to exert a significant influence on present life. Other major religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism, are represented in our islands to a lesser extent. It is important that while recognising the role of Christianity as the major religious tradition of this country, students should also be encouraged to develop understanding of and respect for people of other faiths and beliefs.”

In Key Stage 1 (Years 1-3), “students learn about Christianity and at least one other principal religion”.

In Key Stage 2 (Years 4-6), “students learn about Christianity and at least two of the other principal religions”.

Similarly, the older 2008 national curriculum document for Religious Education extends to Key Stage 3 (Years 7-9) the expectation that students learn about Christianity and at least 3 other principal religions.

Religion in UK schools

Not unlike in Cayman schools, religion plays a key role in UK schools funded by the government.

Publicly funded ‘maintained’ schools in the UK are legally required to provide a daily act of collective worship, according to information from the UK National Secular Society, a group that advocates for “the separation of religion and state”.

“Despite the law requiring worship, the Department for Education is leaving it up to schools to interpret the law how they see fit. Many schools ignore the law and do not hold acts of worship and we are not aware of any attempts to enforce it,” according to NSS.

The religion-in-schools issue is far different in the United States and is subject to continual litigation. The general rule can be summarised as it is OK to ‘teach about religion’ but not to ‘teach religion’.

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