Government and public schools should be free from religious mandates

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Mr. Editor,

The Ministry of Education recently responded to concerns expressed by Swami Aksharananda regarding the issue of Christian-themed prayers recited at an event hosted by the Ministry of Education. In its response, the ministry assured the Swami that no religion was favored by the use of universal prayer, reaffirming the belief that “no religion, ethnicity, gender, etc. is not or should be considered dominant over the other. Instead, the ministry has adopted a ‘universal prayer’ which it considers consistent with this belief. In his letter, the Swami criticized the adoption of Christian-themed prayers, citing its colonial heritage and our modern difficulty in ensuring a secular state given the influence of Christian values ​​in public institutions. The ministry seems to disagree with its view of universal prayer as a form of Christian-themed prayer, but if one dissects prayer it gives the impression of monotheistic worship As such, I support Swami’s call for religious neutrality in public institutions for reasons which I will explain.

Public institutions such as public schools and government agencies contain many symbols of Guyana’s colonial history. From the ways we practice in public service to reciting a prayer before starting meetings, these are not unique to Guyanese political culture, but are remnants of the traditions of our colonial ancestor, the old empire. British. Customs are difficult to break because they are supported by the systems that propel the engine of society which informs the social sphere of norms that are and are not acceptable. Public prayers, whether in schools or any other public place, are an example of a colonial relic that continues to have an impact on the secular being of Guyanese society. During the tenure of the former administration through his ministerial representative, Dr Rupert Roopnarine pledged that the Department of Education would remove any mandate or motive that would require schools to require students to recite religious prayers during classes. school assemblies. According to him, “We are a multi-religious country and we have to realize that we have multi-religious children …” However, Dr Roopnarine went further to hint at an alternative, saying “whatever the prayer none of the religions.

Later that year, the Department of Education expressed interest in demanding a universal prayer that would encompass all religious worldviews in public schools. I produced an elaborate letter at the time in response to this proposal. But let’s think about it for a moment. The Ministry of Education headed by Dr Roopnarine believed in the secular ideal of the state, reiterated the importance of the religious neutrality of public institutions, including public schools, and opposed the idea of ​​reciting any prayer that favors a particular religion, and yet somehow thought it would be better if the ministry representing the government designed its own prayer that would somehow encompass other all religions. Does this sound reasonable? This approach as resolving religious privileges in Guyanese society is also the same approach that the current administration through its Ministry of Education wishes to apply. But such a proposal remains problematic for several reasons, which I will elucidate as follows.

First, whether called universal prayer or interfaith prayer, these terms are ambiguous as to what they can practically encompass. Guyana is made up of three major religions (the majority denominations to which people subscribe) and within these major denominations there are denominations or sects with orthodox and dissenting views. For example, Christianity consists of Anglicanism, Catholicism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, etc. Hinduism consists of Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism. Islam is made up of Sunnis (the majority denomination), Shiites and Sufism. There are religions that are not theistic, like Buddhism. There are also the non-religious – who do not adhere to any religion. Now you can say that trying to use an “interfaith” or “universal” prayer poses a serious challenge, which questions whether the government should have an obligation to address theological compatibility. Even though the government is guided by religious and non-religious scholars, it remains a concern that the government wants to take a stand to demand what prayer (s) someone can or should say. While it is less worrisome that religious organizations insist on their versions of a prayer for all, it is more baffling that a government wants to be able to issue memoranda prescribing which prayer people should use.

Second, for universal or interfaith prayer to be a means of inclusion, it must be shown that it can actually accomplish this. So far, this is not the case. But given the diversity of religious views in Guyana, how could this be practically possible? Consider it a prayer to be said, so who can prescribe what to say and, in whose name, what deity and what faith? In addition, any proposal for inclusiveness that restricts religious faith as a criterion appears to inadvertently or intentionally overlook minority groups of people, including children, who lack a religious perspective (atheists, humanists , agnostics, etc.). Therefore, it is reasonable to argue that any prayer that replaces a privileged prayer under the guise of a universal prayer would not meet the criteria of cohesion and inclusiveness, as not everyone would be included by their criteria of religiosity.

Religious persons enjoy constitutional protection: the freedom to practice or manifest their religion and the freedom to be religious. This is further guaranteed by the constitutional principle of freedom of conscience or belief and the profession of such beliefs. In addition, the constitutional declaration of freedom of conscience also protects an individual against the imposition or indoctrination of conscience against his will. These are secular principles that underpin the proclamation of Guyana as a secular state. As public institutions are financed by all members of society (religious and non-religious), the government has only one obligation: to respond to the demand for inclusiveness in the interest of all its stakeholders. And because public schools are accessible to all children, regardless of their beliefs or religious beliefs, the government’s obligation to respect inclusiveness is arguably best met with neutrality. Public schools should be free from religious mandates. Perhaps more importantly, government should act not as a religious institution but as an institution of the people, which is a government that is elected democratically, not theocratically.

Truly,

Ferlin F. Pedro


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