Religion and the public sphere


Before Guyana was acknowledged as a pluralistic society in the 1970’s, most public schools were run by Christian denominational faiths. This was done in an effort to promote the spread of Christianity across the country as it was considered the “superior” religion. While these schools are no longer run by these denominational faiths today, the lack of plurality which existed during the colonial period is still evident in their names such as St. Stanislaus, St. Josephs and St. Margaret’s.
Years after and there still remains remnants of British colonialism within our public school system with regards to the prayers being said. Due to social and religious conditioning however, this is often overlooked as it is considered a trivial matter. Its reason for being considered trivial is important as the majority of those against the removal of Christian prayers belong to that specific religion.
In countries such as the United States of America, Canada and the European Union, the place of religion within the public school system was questioned and has resulted in several states banning the practise in these countries. In Guyana, Minister of Education, Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine has recently also caused many to question the place of religion within the public school system. This comes as a result of the Minister’s recent statements regarding his intent to review Christian prayers within public schools.
Reverend Patricia Sheeratan-Bisnauth, of the Guyana Presbyterian Church, expressed her surprise that the official prayers in most public schools are Christian oriented as Guyana has been acknowledged as a pluralistic state since the 1970’s. She assumed that as such, prayers would reflect this plurality.
“It should never be about competition to see whose God is better, but it should be about encouraging respect between these different beliefs systems,” Bisnauth said.
President of the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha, Dr. Vindhya Persaud had also expressed her support for the change.
“It has always been a belief of mine that we should have universal prayers within our schools. By using such a prayer, it promotes tolerance and respect for each other’s cultures, especially in a country such as ours,” said Persaud.
An interview with a young woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity however, stated that the Government’s interference in religious practises contradicts its intentions of creating a tolerant state. She stated that “many laws are from the bible and we just have to live with them.” When asked whether she would feel the same way if she belonged to another religion she said “yes” and went on to add, “What’s the big deal to whisper your own prayer? Pray when you go to your temple, I wouldn’t go to a Hindu school.”
While various religious groups may be in support of the removal of Christian prayers, observations made through social media, casual conversation and interviews revealed the disagreeing views of the “grassroots” people. Many are of the opinion that the removal of Christian prayers within schools is an encroachment on basic human rights and an attack on religious freedom and free speech.
According to several atheists and agnostics interviewed from Guyana and two other Caribbean countries, specified religious prayers can often promote feelings of alienation within other religious groups.
Recent University of Guyana graduate, Salima Husain, revealed that during her time at La Grange Primary School, she and children of other faiths were allowed to say their own prayers. She related that as a Muslim she was happy to say her own prayer but had to do so quietly as the Christian prayers would be said loudly. She subsequently moved to a private Islamic school which had Muslim prayers. She related that even in the Islamic school, students of other faiths were allowed to say their own prayers also.
Subraj Singh, a spiritualist, who is also a University of Guyana graduate and comes from a Hindu background, stated that he believes Christian prayers within the school system are wrong for several reasons.
Singh pointed out that compulsory Christian prayer excludes other religious groups in the schools system and as such, coerces students to partake in religious acts regardless of their beliefs. He stated that while in school he often saw Muslim children cup their hands to say their own prayers. It remains an issue however as to why these students had to quietly say their prayers while listening to Christian prayers. He opined that prayers in school are purposeless as they become routine after a while and are just there for tradition.
Aside from the issue of prayers within schools, the belief of religious superiority can also cause religious prejudice. A young child previously from the New Guyana School at a very young age became a victim of religious prejudice. Due to the fact that she came from a Hindu background and the school is predominantly Christian, she was often teased by other students. “You’re not a born Christian, you don’t belong here,” was just one amongst the many things they would reportedly say to her. Teachers of the predominantly Christian school were said to have encouraged this prejudice as they never uttered a word of reprimand against the students. The young girl’s mother stated that many days she would drop her child off to school crying and would pick her up crying as school had become a place of torment for her due to her religious background. After several months of putting up with the ridicule directed at her, the child asked to be moved and subsequently enrolled in Success Elementary and finally to School of the Nations.
The general consensus amongst those from the non-religious group was that having to partake in praying and singing hymns at school often resulted in feelings of isolation and confusion for them as children. The practise was said to make them feel as if their freedom of disbelief had in some way been compromised and due to the fact that they are a minority, would ultimately be taken away.
This feeling of alienation, atheist Adelle DeNobrega intimated, can often foster feelings of depression as it can cause the irreligious to believe they do not belong in any part of society. There is also the case of these persons being othered by peers due to their disbelief, thus causing unhealthy social relationships and shame towards one’s choice of conscience.
While there are some calls for a completely secular environment which would see public schools free of religion, as “Guyana is an indivisible, secular, democratic sovereign state,” Roopnaraine said that the Ministry’s aim is to implement interdenominational prayers which will serve all religions.
President of the Guyana Teachers Union, Mark Lyte while in support of the Government’s initiative to place interdenominational prayers in public schools, admitted that they are very hard to coin. “Interdenominational prayers typically reflect one religion over another as the structure of prayers for different religions are all different.”
The idea of structured personal reflection seems to have garnered a lot of public support as a suitable alternative to interdenominational prayers within schools as it allows freedom of choice. Instead of students only quoting the Bible, structured personal reflection will allow them to quote the Holy Quran, Bhagavad-Gita and maybe even Marx or Plato.
However, founder of the Guyana Secular Association, Ferlin Pedro is of the belief that prayers in the public sphere, whether limited to one religion or universal, are acts of imposition and threatens constitutional principles.
With regards to the proposed interdenominational prayer, Pedro related his belief that “it is more of a governmental prayer.”
“We don’t want to have a dictatorship where a set of values, morals and beliefs are dictated by a selected few and handed down to us as mandatory,” he said.
He also stated that there are denominations such as the Jehovahs witnesses who would not partake in universal prayers due to their beliefs. As such, he raised the question as to whether these prayers are being coined for the majority alone.
Pedro also expressed his opposition to the idea of structured personal reflection, labelling it as a “lazy” alternative and further suggesting that it is a sly way of keeping prayers in schools.
“While our group had considered this as an option as it is one step forward to making Guyana a secular state, the problem with that reasoning is that it is a lazy response to the real issue.”
Secularism, according to Pedro, is the best stance the Government can take as any other option would see it yielding to a majority to the exclusion of minorities. He stated that what people need to realize and what the Government should try to get across is that, “Government neutrality is not Government hostility towards religion.”
The reasoning, although sound can bear fruit to many problems as it may actually threaten the country’s state of being a democracy, this is according to Ruel Johnson, Cultural Policy Advisor to the Ministry of Education. He stated that people often confuse secular with godless or devoid of religion when in fact, secular means decisions are not made with a religious basis.
“Democracy means representation of the people. If there is a democratic consensus that there is a capacity for inclusion of religious elements in the public sphere, then it is an undemocratic thing to remove that merely in the interest of what is supposed to be secular.”
While Guyana is legally secular, it recognizes the needs of its multi-cultural and multi-religious people within that state. “If one seeks to impose an absence of religion, you are denying the right to religious freedom. The only states which operate like that are communistic ones. One needs to recognize in the spirit of tolerance that people will have faith and in a liberal democracy what we do is accommodate. What we do need to do however, is ensure that there is no primacy of any religion as that will move us towards a theocracy.”
According to the Constitution of Guyana, the practise of having Christian prayers in public schools across the country is in contravention to laws set out in relation to the separation of church and state. Constitutionally, structured personal reflection is the only form of prayer permissible as the private voluntary student prayer does not interfere with the school’s educational mission.
In our constitution “freedom of conscience” is guaranteed under our fundamental rights in Article 145 (3). While many can continue the debate for and against Christian prayers in schools, the constitution leaves no room for debate on the issue as it states-
“Except with his own consent, no person attending any place of education shall be required to receive religious instruction or to take part in or attend any religious ceremony or observance if that instruction, ceremony or observance relates to a religion which is not his own.”

1 Comment

  1. Keith Williams says:

    I disapprove of the reintroduction of Prayer in Schools, as I disapprove of the current argument that Government must await the approval of Hindu Groups before assigning the date for the national holiday in observance of Diwali. I have state that at the beginning of each year the dates for all national holidays should be gazetted so they can be included in calendars. Religious groups should be advised that they can still observe whatever ritual that relates to their observation at any date and time they determine would be most appropriate.

    The problem with religion and people, is that everyone wants theirs to have primacy. When the PPP was in power Hindus and Muslims were arguing and lobbying for religious primacy. Now that Coalition is in power it appears to have gone in the opposite direction.

    Yeah, Guyana prior to becoming a republic, and the Burnham Government enacting equal rights legislation to end the discriminatory recognition in national and religious holidays, all of these holidays and festivals were western and Christian oriented. The Government moved to end prayers in school because of the adoption of secularism in terms of the face of our national society. We began that transition back then, and would have, I believe, moved further than we are today except for one intervention. That is, the introduction of the same kind of religious primacy in the administration of Government in1992, as obtained under the Colonial Regime. In fact the brochure put out be the PPP to publicize Carifesta portrayed Guyana as a country where one can come to see the unique Hindu culture and its peoples. Can’t recall any Hindus protesting then, in fact they were finding ways of rationalizing it.


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