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Rangiora New Life College, Religion and Discrimination

December 13th, 2009 by Matt

On Wednesday I flew to Christchurch for an interview regarding a religious education (RE) teaching position in a Catholic School. On having the interview and receiving the subsequent rejection email, it was clear what the reason I did not get the position was: I am a protestant, the school has a particular Catholic ethos that it was trying to instill in the students; this ethos involved such things as Marian devotions, praying the rosary, prayers for the dead and regular involvement in the Eucharist. As a leader in the school I would be expected to, by my teaching and life, encourage and model this ethos. Given I am an evangelical protestant I could not do this. I could, of course, explain to students what the Catholic teaching was on these issues and respect the special character of the school but due to my religious convictions, I could not truly fit with the ethos of the school because I could not model it, as fact, in my own example.

Now in no way do I think I was treated unfairly, it was afterall a Catholic School and this was something that was  obvious both from the name on the advertisement in the education gazette and from the website linked to from the same ad. The function of this school was not simply to impart information; it was to imbibe a particular religious way of life, some of it involving what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls “educating for responsible action,”

The ultimate goal of all education, as Christians see it, is that those who are taught shall live in such a way as to carry out their responsibilities to God and find joy and delight in so doing. … But if responsible action is to ensue, more is necessary than for the students to have knowledge of the relevant matters and the ability to perform the relevant actions. Knowledge and ability are not yet performance. It is also necessary that the students’ tendencies, ranging all the way from their unreflective habits to highly self-conscious commitments, be those of acting in accord with the normative laws for right action. Education, accordingly, must have among its goals to secure–always in morally defensible ways–the formation of right tendencies.[1] [Emphasis original]

Wolterstorff argues that modelling plays an important role in cultivating tendencies. He notes that a series of studies show that students who view other people resisting the temptation to act in an immoral or inappropriate way fortify their own resistance to temptation.[2] Wolterstorff states, “The evidence seems to be that not only do a model’s low standards influence the student to lower the standards which otherwise he or she would adopt, but also a model’s high standards influence the child to raise his or hers.”[3] [Emphasis original]. An important caveat of this is that studies show “the self-denial induced by a stringent model gives way rather readily when the subject is confronted by another model with lower standards.”[4] Because the school was seeking to train students to internalise a Catholic ethos, and an important part of the pedagogy of internalising such an ethos is modelling, it follows that leaders within communities committed to this goal must themselves follow and be committed to the basic moral teachings of the community. I was not. I am a protestant and so would buck (internally) against many of the tendencies the RE department were trying to teach.

This does not seem terribly controversial to me. Schools dedicated to inculculating a religious way of life into their students have the right to demand that the leaders in their schools be committed to and reflect this way of life. It is perfectly reasonable for Jewish schools to expect people in positions of leadership to be faithful followers of the Torah. It is perfectly reasonable for Muslim schools to expect leaders in their community to be faithful Muslims; for atheist schools devoted to promoting atheism to expect their leaders to be atheists.

I reflect on this because of the recent outcry in response to a Campbell Live story that a Christian school in Rangiora, Rangiora New Life School, expelled a student for getting pregnant and subsequently revoked the deputy head-boy status given to her fiancé, the father of her child. Now, in light of what the media has reported, I will say I am not in agreement with everything the school did (I should qualify this by stating that I have very little faith that the media to report events like this terribly accurately – so take that concession with a grain of salt).

For example, Ollie Sterrit the deputy head-boy and his fiancé Sara Etherington stated that “if we decided not to keep her [abort their daughter] they didn’t support it, and they still didn’t support us if we did keep it. So we were stuck in the middle and couldn’t do anything to please them.” The media reports that the teen couple “are engaged and determined to stay together.” Now, I am inclined to think that if a teenage couple respond to getting pregnant unmarried by taking their responsibilities seriously by refusing to kill their child, getting engaged, making a commitment to stay together and to continue their education they should be supported and commended for doing the right thing. They are of course not yet “legally married” but given their age, in this country, that is impossible; hence it is not clear cut to me that this couple’s choice should not be supported. In fact, I think that a scriptural case could be made that people in this situation can, in certain circumstances, be viewed as being in a constituted kind of common law marriage and that, in fact, it is the duty of the father to marry the woman he has impregnated and to take his responsibilities to her and the child seriously (which is what appears to be happening in this situation).  However, Sara’s parents tell a different story (see the second comment on the Campbell Live link) “We have consistently tried to encourage Ollie and Sara to see the bigger picture (others affected by there decisions) all along, their choice of course. Sara has had every love and support from RNLS  [the school] and her family.

Whatever the truth is on the matter of the school supporting the couple, stripping someone of a position of leadership is not the same thing as not supporting them –  though not permitting Sara to finish her education (she was apparently asked to leave the school) might be. Also giving someone a position of leadership, knowing about the pregnancy and then removing it from them, perhaps demonstrated a lack of wisdom in the first place on the part of the school or some dud processes (or bad media reporting).

However, these issues are not the focus of my concern in this blog post. First, Dave Crampton at Big News seems to suggest that the school had no policy on sex outside of marriage and as such they could not claim that this was part of the ethos they were trying to impart, meaning the school had no right to suddenly make an issue of the sexual conduct of its students, “The schools handbook has no mention of policies on sex, although swearing and alcohol are forbidden in school grounds, as are piercings for males.” If you visit Rangiora New Life’s website a very different picture emerges. First of all, the name of the school  “New Life” immediately suggests it is evangelical or pentecostal. On the front page the school mission states “Providing quality Christian education that equips and inspires all students to reach their life’s potential in order to serve God’s purposes.” There is a clear indication by the use of words such as “their life’s potential” and “serve God’s purpose” that the type of education they are seeking to inculculate is holistic, they hope that it will impact all aspects of the students’ lives. Click through to their Mission, Vision and Values page and you’ll find under the heading “Vision,”

GODLINESS – Building character in the students that will enable them to lead by example.

LIFE SKILLS – Equipping students with skills in relationships, home-life and vocation.

EVANGELISM – Taking every opportunity to share the life changing message of the gospel.

SERVICE – Impacting our region and beyond through sacrificial service and giving. [Emphasis added]

Here we see concern with character, leading by example, reference to relationship skills, home-life and vocation tell us they mean more than relationships with their school peers and teachers. Evangelism and reference impacting the region and beyond show, again, the broader ethos of the school. The “guiding values” on this page continue these motifs and among these we find “Ensuring school relationships, procedures and policies reflect Biblical principles and the highest Christian conduct” and “Promoting personal responsibility in learning and conduct, and community responsibility by way of service and leadership skill.” Does anyone really think, on reading these, that banging your fellow teenage school peer and knocking her up is compatible with Rangiora New Life’s understanding of these terms and is the sort of example in leadership or high biblical standard that the school is seeking to promote by example and that this sort of conduct is what the other parents with kids in the school want modelled to their kids?

Now, as Madeleine points out, when contracts are formed (I’m getting at here Dave Crampton’s contractual suggestion) all aspects of the communication between the parties, the information freely offered about the parties states of mind, intent, etc as well as the surrounding documentation speak to how the minutae of the handbooks and policies should be read and interpreted. The school is clearly a conservative, pentecostal/evangelical bible believing Christian school. Did anyone miss the memo that people with such beliefs tend to frown on pre-marital sex and that such people have high expectations of the example of their leaders – that’s why church leaders being hypocrites is such a big deal.

Second, what is my concern is the widespread belief of some commentators that a religious school cannot demand that leaders in their community abide by the moral teachings of the religious ethos the school seeks to inculculate. Idiot/Savant of No Right Turn’s comments are typical,

This is clearly unlawful discrimination on the basis of marital status and family status, in violation of sections 21(1)(b) and s21(1)(l) of the Human Rights Act 1993. It may also constitute discrimination on the basis of religious belief in violation of s21(1)(c). Rangiora New Life School is a religious school, so it has an exemption for the latter – but not for the former. It can not legally exclude or punish students who have children or are in de facto relationships, any more than it can exclude or punish them for being divorced (or the children of people who are divorced).

Regardless of the merits (or lack thereof as Madeleine insists) of Idiot/Savant’s legal analysis here there is a moral point here worth addressing. Idiot/Savant seems to think that religious schools can discriminate on the grounds of religious belief but not on grounds of sexual behaviour. It is hard to see the sense in this because in many circumstances, and certainly in this case, a person’s religious beliefs include a set of beliefs about sexual morality. If we are to take this line of argument seriously a religious school can discriminate against people who believe that sex outside of marriage is wrong but they cannot discriminate against people who refuse to practice this belief. It is hard to see how such a view could be taken seriously; surely the whole point of these teachings is that they be followed.

Idiot/Savant continues,

But there’s another aspect to this: Rangiora New Life School is a state integrated school, and therefore effectively part of the state education system. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act therefore clearly applies. By discriminating against its students and denying them any involvement in the decisions about them, the school has violated the right to be free from discrimination and the right to justice. And that is something we should not be tolerating from any part of our government. Rangiora New Life School’s board must be told to obey the law, cease its discrimination, and reinstate the student it has excluded. And if they do not, they should be replaced.

Idiot/Savant here makes heavy weather over the fact that Rangiora New Life is an integrated school. While this is true, it is also a religious school which aims to inculculate a particular religious way of life. Integrated religious schools, with special characters allowing them to promote a particular religion, are extremely common. If Idiot/Savant’s, position is correct none of these schools should be allowed to require leaders in the school or students who attend the schools to uphold a certain religious ethos. This would of course make a mockery out of their mission to promote such a way of life.

Lurking behind this complaint is, I think, a mindset that schools that promote a particular religious ethos (or at least take the ethos seriously) should not get public funds; only secular schools should get such funds. In practice this means that a school that promotes a secular perspective antithetical to a particular religion will get state funds whereas a school that inculculates certain religious beliefs will not. It’s odd that people like Idiot/Savant who maintain the right to be free from discrimination on the part of the state would support such a policy that clearly discriminates against tax paying parents with religious views.

Wolterstorff notes a deeper problem,

there are parents within society for whom it is a matter of religious conviction that their children receive a religiously integrated education. … If those parents are forbidden by law to establish and patronize schools that teach in accord with their religious convictions, then the discrimination is embodied in law. If they not legally forbidden to establish and patronize such schools then the discrimination is embodied in economics. Were those parents to establish and patronize schools that teach in accord with their convictions, they would have to pay for those schools out of their own pockets, while still contributing to the general tax fund for the other schools, obviously there free exercise of religion is thereby infringed upon in a way in which that of others is not. They do not enjoy equal freedom to live their lives as they see fit.[5]

To insist that schools either forgo public funds or compromise the religious ethos they seek to inculculate is itself discrimination. Wolterstorff notes the only escape from this dilemma apart from privatising education entirely is to “fund equitably all schools that meet minimum educational requirements” and this means allowing schools to take public funding that will require strict standards of sexual morality from student leaders. Of course one could always admit that one does not actually support the right of all to be free from religious discrimination…

[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff Educating for Responsible Action (Grand Rapids MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co) 14-15.
Ibid 51-55.
Ibid 55.
[4] Ibid.
Nicholas Wolterstorff “The Role of Religion in Political Issues” Religion in the Public Square

Religious Restraint and Public Policy

While it is not central to my point I cannot ignore the fact that in two places now (see the second comment on the Campbell Live link for one) I have seen the parents express anger at Campbell Live’s intrusion into their home without their consent. They had apparently categorically told the producers that they did not give permission for their property to be used for the interview but Campbell Live ignored their wishes and waited til they were not home to film the piece. Appalling.

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  • What gets me about your non-central point re Campbell Live filming on the parents property without their consent is what one can glean from this. These parents are raising several children, one of whom has fallen pregnant at 16 and has been asked to leave her school who is now dealing with parenthood herself. They will have had their reasons for not wanting to be part of this story and they will have likely conveyed these to their daughter Sara.

    Campbell Live got let into their property by someone. So in addition to trespassing and being completely disrespectful to the owners of the property, Campbell Live actively assisted in Sara going against her parents wishes. This action would have added yet another family issue to a parenting situation that is already fraught with enough stuff to deal with.

    Until a teenager is 18 the judgement area of their brains regarding decision making and risk assessment is not fully formed. Even if you do not know this scientifically, you can observe it – generally teenagers increasingly show better choice making skills post 18. Given this, I think it is important for young people to stay living at home until this stage has kicked in fully and for those young people to be guided in their decision making by their parents.

    Clearly this is what these parents are trying to do for their daughter. She lives in their home with her child. That fact speaks volumes as to the support and love and guidance they are trying to show her. Especially when you think they must be pretty mad and pretty disappointed about some of her recent conduct and decisions – no good parent wouldn’t be. I am quite certain they’ll still be trying to instill in her a sense of responsibility, in gaining perspective and empathy and all those sorts of things that one hopes young people will have learned by the time they reach adulthood.

    Given this then, how much damage did Campbell Live do to that family by filming that story on the parents property? Whether Sara drove it or they pushed it, Campbell Live knew the parents did not want the story, knew they did not want it to happen on their property, they knew this was a teenager who’d come off the tracks and needs all the guidance and support and love she can get from her parents but despite this they did it anyway. They helped Sara to disrespect her parents wishes and their property. They chose the story at the expense of the people but then they had the hypocrisy to package it as if they cared.

    .-= My last blog-post ..Rangiora New Life College, Religion and Discrimination =-.

  • Actually, going even further than Madeleine’s point, the “decision making part of the brain” is still developing well into the 20s.

  • It seems to me that there are two separate issues here…

    1. The processes/judgment employed by the school around this issue
    2. The issue of leaders/students adhering to the special character of the school

    Based on what I have read on the TV3 website, the school didn’t handle this issue in the best way possible.

    If they truly did know about the sexual activity beforehand, and then changed their mind at a later stage, and reversed their initial decision, it suggests a weakness in their processes which needs some urgent attention.

    Perhaps they need to clarify exactly what the role of head boy/girl is intended to encompass – if it is purely about academic excellence and leadership, then I can understand the complaints here, but if it is about both leadership in the academics and matters of faith and morals then that’s a different story all together.

    Were the students here made aware of what the school expects of their head boy/girl?

    From reading the TV3 article it appears that the students (and parents) seem to think that their obligations in this area were only academic.

    This suggest that, at the very least, the school may need to address their communication of the expectations they hold when it comes to their student leaders.

    And I would also be extremely disappointed if they did actually ask a student to leave the school altogether purely for making a bad decision about sex, and then getting pregnant – as the TV3 article claims they did.

    This statement intrigued me…

    “Ollie says he believes the school has every right to make decisions about things that occur at school, but not outside of school.”

    This sort of erroneous thinking might work for supporters of Bill Clinton, but it doesn’t pass the basic commonsense test.

    Leadership 101 is about integrity, and that means a consistent application of principles in all areas and times of one’s life.

    So it does actually matter what you do when you leave school grounds, and in many ways it actually becomes more important for a school leader, because off-site is where most of your leadership is exercised.

    And it becomes even more of an issue when your actions off-campus are brought back on to the campus with you, and in such a public fashion.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Can evolution explain religion? =-.

  • Matt,

    I’m sorry you didn’t get the job.

    At least it was for the right reason.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Catharsis: retelling the Nativity as a fable =-.

  • Just one comment, you have mentioned that TV3 were intrusive as they did the filming at the house without consent of the parents. This implies that TV3 were trespassing. The boy concerned went to TV3 with the story. He arranged for TV3 to interview him at the house. He’s 17 or so, he doesn’t need TV3 to get permission from his parents to do a story the way they did if reporters are welcome into his home..
    .-= My last blog-post .. =-.

  • 1. Anyone aged under 18 lacks full capacity to contract.
    2. The owners of the house did not given consent.
    3. The parents who objected where the parents of Sara, so if you are correct Ollie invited Campbell Live into his fiance’s parents house which is even worse.

    Bottom line Campbell Live acted unethically.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Madeleine on TV Tonight on Abortion & Parental Consent =-.

  • Any connection between special character schools and government is going to inevitably bring about a watering down of the school’s character. This could be from the slow effects of the divided loyalties that come from being paid by government, or the much quicker effects of scrutiny by the media or eventual direct intrusion by government (for instance sex ed). This is why I thank God for home schooling and pray to Him for a revival of teaching orders in the Catholic Church.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Manhattan Declaration- a call to stand with those who fight for life =-.

  • many years ago I was in the same position as the guy in this situation, yet my (Catholic) school backed me 100% in my efforts to complete my education and provide for my new family. This left a profound message on how to deal with people that have fallen short of the Christian ideal, yet are doing the best they can with the situation they find themselves in. It would be a different story if the couple were flouting their actions as completely fine and leading others astray, but this does not seem to be the case. So many abortions arise from the fear of rejection by the community, and “loss of a future” caused by leaving school etc. I can completely understand the loss of a leadership role as a result of this, but not the kicking out of school. The board missed a real opportunity to show they “loved the sinner not the sin” here.
    PS, Cambell Live have proven themselves yet again to be ambulance chasing gutter-journalists, treading relationships underfoot in their sickening rush to sell advertising.

  • Very good comment Cedric.
    .-= My last blog-post ..Another Climate Change Science Hockey Stick Graph =-.

  • I go to the school in question, and the problem was that the Princepal, greg, appointed ollie as head boy, but forgot to tell the BOT, so when the BOT heard about it, they revoked his title, not the princepal.
    also, she chose to leave, was not expelled,and is now at school (well, not excactly a school) close to her home, that is more able to supports her with her child..

  • It’s funny how your version doesn’t sound nearly so sensational and quite understandable – I wonder why Campbell Live didn’t tell it like that?

    Thanks for dropping by 🙂
    .-= My last blog-post ..St Matthews on the Terrace: Progressive Irrationality =-.

  • Hey, its me Sara, so I just came across this after my oldest (nearly 9) did a google search… Interesting finding articles about me years later, such a pity that there is some miss informed information here that is very incorrect to the reality of how things happened… Would like to discuss this article with the author, as while its well written I’m interested to know where you got some of your facts and quotes from.

    And Madeleine, hi, if years later you’d see this response I don’t know, however you also have been miss informed, the Campbell live team did not know that my parents didn’t want filming done there infact no body did as location was not discussed with my parents till after filming (the whole process happened within a matter of hours from being approached about the story to filming being over) so for this the Campbell live team were not being disrespectfull and it did not cause disruption at home so for this Campbell live are not at fault, however they did other things that we were less than happy about.
    Impossible for the school to not know about the pregnancy prior to appointing him the position as they had asked me to leave (with no choice tho) the summer prior when I was pregnant and by the time all the Campbell live stuff happened our daughter was about 5 months old…

    The princapal and head of secondary were who had the initial say and who appointed him as a head student the pastor of the school (he’s no longer there) is who handled it the way it was and who demanded the position be revoked as it wasn’t passed through the board of trustees approoval (oliver was not the only head student to have his position revoked, another did on the bases that he also had had sex)

    I have since had apologies from 95% of staff at rangiora new life about how it was all handled and so has oliver, although never from the pastor… Only last year I happened to be seated across the isle from him on a flight… It was very uncomfterble.

    Its an amazing school, mistakes were made by them and us, and changes made for the better, Ollie has since done some presentations at the school in the science department and our daughter attended school there before my family moved out of the area…

    I was a good kid but yes not so educated on sexual safety and so my one bit of rebelliousness (having sex with the boyfriend I’d dated for a whole 2 years prior) had consequenses… It was challenging being a young mum, but I managed, I finished my schooling got UE and level 1,2 and 3 have been head girl at the school i completed my studies, was an advocate for young mums and since have done support work for young mums…have studied at university and am continuing to do so alongside having an amazing job, a supportive husband and 4 beautiful children… Yep its been tough but other than maybe one certain interview I wouldn’t change a thing…

    Xx Sara