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PUBLISHED COMMENTARY: Freedom of Religion Under Threat in Jamaican Schools: A Call for Respect

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

The recent Ministry of Education's directive on school devotions in Jamaica now raises significant concerns about the state's interference with religious practices in denominational schools. Peter Espeut's insightful column highlights the potential ramifications of this directive, which threatens the long-standing tradition of autonomy and respect between the government and religious institutions in education. Jamaica's history is deeply intertwined with the efforts of church schools and religious trust high schools, such as St. George's College, Alpha Academy, Kingston College, Ardenne, St. Hilda's, SAHS, Happy Grove, Mount Alvernia, St Hugh's, Calabar, Glenmuir, ICHS, Morant Bay, Campion College, St Jago, Clarendon College, St Catherine, deCarteret, Hillel, Black River, and Calabar high schools, forming massive parts of the foundation of this nation's education system. These institutions have played a crucial role in shaping the moral and educational landscape of the country. However, the recent guidelines issued by the Andrew Holness administration cast a shadow of doubt over the future of denominational schools and the religious practices they hold dear.

Jamaica Gleaner : In this 2019 photo, Carolyn Trumble, mission education promoter of the Mary Knoll Missioners, Los Altos, California, gives a motivational talk to the junior school at morning devotions at the Mount Alvernia High School, Montego Bay.

The overtly commendable principle heralding these guidelines from the MOEY is the promotion of non-denominational practices, aiming to unite rather than divide students by focusing on critically applicable universal values and principles. While fostering inclusivity is undoubtedly important, it should not come at the expense of suppressing the rich tapestry of religious traditions that are integral to much of the arguably nobler parts Jamaica's cultural heritage that flows, without apology, from religious schools. One of the most concerning aspects of the guidelines is their attempt to regulate the duration of school devotions, limiting them to a mere 15 to 30 minutes, with one extended session per week. Such restrictions disregard the diversity of religious practices and traditions within Jamaica's denominational schools, many of which hold longer, deeply meaningful worship services occasionally.

Even more troubling are the prohibitions outlined in the guidelines, which include activities like ablution, eating, and the display of religious symbols and rituals. These prohibitions risk stifling the authentic expression of religious faith within denominational schools. Christian rituals, such as anointing with oil or partaking in the Eucharist or any form of Holy Communion, are fundamental to the beliefs of many Jamaican Christians, and these guidelines infringe upon their religious freedoms.

The Ministry's attempt to control religious practices within denominational schools, which have historically operated with a high degree of autonomy, has the clear potential to ignite tensions between the government and the church. It is worth noting that no consultation took place with stakeholders before these guidelines were distributed, in direct contradiction to the Consultation Code of Practice for the Public Sector.

Fortunately, Jamaica's Constitution guarantees all its citizens the freedom of religion and grants religious institutions certain rights. Jamaicans have the right to choose their religion or opt for a secular education. Government-owned schools must comply with these guidelines, but denominational schools, rooted in their religious ethos, should choose to resist them robustly.

Drawing on a broader perspective, the success stories of students from various faiths underscore the importance of respecting religious diversity. During my experiences abroad, particularly in Trinidad, I interacted with Muslim, Hindu, and local Rastafari students to my own betterment. My best female friend of over 60 years, who attended and led the student body of Convent of Mercy Alpha, is a testament to the value of denominational schools. She, an Anglican, participated fully in the distinctly Catholic rituals of that nearby Roman Catholic School and went on to co-lead with me, by popular election, the Sixth Form Association (SFA), a strong nationwide organization at that time. I was plainly no Anglican but KC eagerly molded me and many others into the contributing citizen that I am still today. Of the 85%+ of my students who have, of their own accord, come from denominational schools, over 1300 have gone on to obtain doctorates and have exhibited exemplary ethical and productive lives. Notably, the Rhodes Scholarship Committee has recognized the achievements of 11 of them, granting them well-deserved free rides to Oxford University. This success is a testament to the positive influence of denominational schools in shaping the futures of young individuals schooled in Jamaica.

Here's the thing: The Ministry's policy directive on devotions in schools threatens the fundamental principles of religious freedom and autonomy that have long been wisely cherished in Jamaican education. It is crucial for all stakeholders, including parents, educators, and religious leaders, to engage in a constructive dialogue to find a balanced approach that respects religious diversity while fostering unity in the education system. Failure to do so could jeopardize the cherished traditions that have shaped the heights of Jamaica's educational excellence for generations. Personally, I am most grateful to a denominational school which took this poor rural Maroon boy in and to the various denominational schools that, together with the quasi-secular, Wolmer's Trust school staffed with mostly Godly and kind teachers, who all sacrificed to help this single-parent Maroon father to rather satisfactorily guide my family to notable educational success.

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