Christian Converser: Is the State clamping down on Christians in NZ?

First published on Christian Converser

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At the end of June, a well known Christian activist group in New Zealand failed in a legal challenge to the removal of their charitable status (registered with various government agencies). The revocation of this status is said to be due to their involvement in political advocacy, which is generally held to be non-charitable in nature, hence political parties for example are generally not able to qualify as charitable entities in New Zealand. At the around the same time, other events this group cites include a current debate over the special character of integrated schools and whether they should be able to require parents to sign statements of belief over views on traditional Christian views of gender and marriage; and there was also a campaign against a Christian counsellor in the South Island who was advocating conversion therapy, which has recently been banned by a law change in the NZ Parliament. The posting on the group founder’s blog started by stating “many are now wondering if there is in fact a state agenda to clamp down on Christian beliefs in NZ”. This is linked partly to the fact that people campaigning against the integrated schools mentioned in the media had asked for a formal governmental inquiry into these matters, which they have characterised as “wholesale LGBTQI discrimination and bullying in our education system”. This came across at the same time as it has become generally known that an integrated Christian school had inserted an additional clause concerning a traditional view of marriage into its integration agreement, apparently without following the required procedure with the Ministry of Education to change the agreement that they had signed some years previously. They were then asked by MoE to remove the clause from the agreement.

State-integrated schools are those schools which have been privately run in the past but which entered into agreements with the NZ government to become integrated into the State system. This means that these schools receive an increased level of Government funding compared to private schools, but are allowed to maintain a “special character” and require the students and parents to agree to uphold the special character. Generally the special character is contained within a statement of beliefs according to what are considered to be key principles of Christian faith. State-integrated schools usually charge “attendance dues” to the families in order to meet some of their building/property costs, as these assets usually remain owned by the school proprietors and are not government owned. The key question therefore is whether the government is entitled to enforce some conditions on these schools in order for them to receive the significant level of state funding that they do (as the attendance dues will not pay for many of the day to day operational costs of the school such as staff wages). That this issue has come to public attention recently has been largely due to one integrated college in the North Island of NZ and it becoming known that a clause concerning traditional theological views of marriage had been inserted into a school’s statement of special character that a school was requiring parents to sign. Subsequently it was revealed that the clause in question had not been registered with the MoE as a change to the original integration agreement the school had signed with the Ministry. Historically, integrations of schools into the State system has only been a feature of the last 47 years. It was established with the passage of the Private Schools Conditional Integration Act of 1975. This was entered into as a result of negotiations between the government of the day and the Catholic Church, and initially only applied to Catholic schools. In the 1990s however there was a change of policy by the National government of the day, and a significant number of existing evangelical-based private schools were permitted to integrate. In more recent times, some Christian schools have been able to integrate virtually at the same time as they have opened, but this is not a universal situation and is quite dependent on the government of the day.

What is certainly the case is that there are more integrated schools today than existed in 1975 and the number of students being educated within them has continued to increase. But there has probably always been an expectation within the state-integrated system that their status is subject to continued agreement with the government, which can impose different requirements at any time. Thus, it would not be an unexpected situation if questions over the requirements of a special character would come up at some point. The most immediate comparison that can be made is with the US system where a recent SCOTUS ruling said that a State which chose to subsidise private education through a voucher system could not deny those vouchers to parents who chose to send their children to a Christian school. Like the NZ situation that is simply a matter of legal interpretation; the SCOTUS held that the families concerned were being prevented from the free exercise of their faith. However, parents were not being barred from the free exercise of their faith, rather they were being barred from receiving funding to exercise it. The same is true of our integrated schools. There is no absolute right either here or in the US for the government to pay for parents to send their children to Christian schools. What has transpired in the US is a legal interpretation made by the current Court which might be changed again in the future because there have been many different rulings concerning that particular clause of the US Constitution.

In this present NZ case what is certain is that only some Christian beliefs are being questioned by the government. If the government objects to some Christian beliefs and passes legislation opposing them, well of course this is a state agenda against Christians. That, however, is a fact of life, not just for Christians, but for many people who hold particular views that are proscribed by legislation; an example being Sunday trading, which has traditionally been abhorred by many in the Christian community, but which has been legally permitted in New Zealand for many many years. The government however, it must be remembered, is a democratic institution made up of representatives elected by the residents of the country to represent them in some way. It is therefore a reasonable presumption that Parliament is passing laws which are broadly representative of the whole population of the country. Whilst this country was founded to a significant but not complete extent by Christian ministers and churches, these people and institutions have varying beliefs which change over time, as always. It has always been the case that Christians, churches and ministries within New Zealand have operated within what is in fact a secular state; it’s extremely doubtful that New Zealand could claim to have been founded as a Christian state, as some would make claims of this nature through Christian nationalist theology.

CCNZ does not see any real proof that there is a current State agenda to clamp down on Christians in NZ. The Supreme Court of NZ’s ruling against the charitable status of the organisation mentioned above is a judicial system, reached on the understanding that the Supreme Court is not a political body, and that therefore its decision is independent of the government of the day. As far as can be reasonably ascertained, the organisation concerned had strong legal representation at the Supreme Court hearings, and therefore had a fair opportunity to present its case. Moreover, and this is most important, the only legal question that was addressed was the organisation’s charitable status; the organisation is still free to express its beliefs just as it was before. In the case of the integrated schools, they are already required to conform with their written contracts with the Government and the main issue there is what the government can require of them, but they are not being stopped from operating in any shape or form. The third case cited was over a counsellor and views expressed in his private practice. The government is not directly involved in regulating the activities of this or any counsellor. The blog post contained in particular this claim (reproduced in part):

“Queer activists wrongly believe that any state-funded school must adopt state-mandated beliefs on same sex marriage and gender ideology. This is incorrect, as these Christian schools are Designated Character Schools with the right to retain and express their religious beliefs, according to the Education and Training Act 2020. Being part-funded by the state (mostly for maintenance on their buildings) does not restrict a Character School’s right to retain and express their religious beliefs.”

These statements reflect an understanding which is only partly correct. Christians schools are subject to the same laws as the rest of New Zealand with the exception of specific clauses in the Human Rights Act 1993 that allow discrimination of employment. Schools in general in the State system (which state-integrated schools re) are expected to teach the State curriculum but are given discretion over exactly how to implement it; at present, sexual beliefs are generally taught through a sex education programme in which the school has considerable discretion and from which parents are able to withdraw their children if they wish. The question that seems to be arising is whether the government can restrict a statement of beliefs that has been produced as part of an integration agreement, and a reasonable interpretation is that they can, since there is no compulsion for the government to enter an agreement, and the government can choose to cancel agreements at its discretion. It is doubtful that “being part-funded by the state (mostly for maintenance on their buildings) does not restrict a Character School’s right to retain and express their religious beliefs.” is correct. It is correct in the absolute sense that anyone can express those beliefs freely in New Zealand according to our Bill of Rights and therefore any school is not restricted from retaining and expressing their religious beliefs. But the question that has arisen is not of one relating to the right of whether a Christian school ‘s rights to retain and express their religious beliefs is being impinged on. The question that has arisen is whether a Christian school is entitled to receive State funding irrespective of its rights to retain and express its religious beliefs. There is, in fact, no absolute entitlement whatsoever of this nature. So the Government would be entirely within its rights to tear up integration agreements if they chose to, and school boards of proprietors of integrated schools would generally hold this type of understanding.

At the moment it’s not clear that there is any more agenda of the State against Christian beliefs than has ever existed in NZ. The present situation is being cited by those whose theological beliefs lead them to a belief that Christians in NZ will face active state persecution for holding their beliefs, as is practiced in certain countries around the world. There have also been proposals to restrict free speech in NZ, which is separate although relevant. At the moment, the free speech proposals are still very uncertain. The view of CCNZ is that the assertion of a purported State clampdown on Christian beliefs is not any more assured at the present than it has been at any other recent time in New Zealand. That is not to decry that this could happen in the future, but it does not seem likely to be the actual case at present. The court case was reached by our nominally independent judiciary after going through the full ambit of review in multiple courts. The school situation only applies to certain beliefs that are in constrast to existing law, and only are relevant to State funding for those schools in accordance with their state-integrated status. That is the only part of the situation that could be held to be directly related to State action against beliefs, and then only in the sense that State funding could be denied to the school on the basis of those beliefs.