Six years ago, five students who are members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were expelled from their school while 122 others faced disciplinary action after they refused to sing the national anthem, ‘Mungu ibariki Afrika; Mungu ibariki Tanzania’ etc. The students argued that it was against their religious beliefs to do so, igniting the wrath of their teachers and education officials. What followed was an interesting legal battle, which only came to its finale with a court ruling last month in favour of the students. But the question that lingers is: How much of religion is too much for students in school?
For many, matters of faith come first whether or not one is in school. That is why Muslim girls are allowed to wear the ‘hijab’. And for Christians like Seventh Day Adventists, there is no work on Saturday. Religious beliefs surpass man-made laws.
It came as a little surprise when on the 12th of July the Court of Appeal of Tanzania led by Chief Justice Chande Othman quashed an earlier verdict by the High Court that had given a nod to the disciplinary action meted out against the students who boycotted singing the revered song.
A law don, Prof Abdallah Safarri says the High Court had erred in upholding the decision by the schools to punish the students simply because they had refused to sing the national anthem.
“The students were not accorded due recognition and respect of their dignity,” he says.
He was backed by Prof Chris Maina Peter, another law professor, who argued that Tanzanian laws do not make it an obligation for anyone to sing the national anthem.
But for some Christians, it is not just a legal matter. It is a matter of faith.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, singing the national anthem is akin to making obeisance to the national flag, and this, they say, is against the Bible, which states that they must worship one God.
“We value education because it has a special place in our lives, but as Jehovah’s Witnesses we value our religion even more. We don’t allow education to go against the Word of God,” says Pastor Zadok Mwaipwisi of the Mbezi Beach Jehovah’s Witnesses church.
He says by winning the court case, it proved the point that schools must not interfere with students’ religious beliefs because the laws of the country gave everyone freedom of worship.
Granted, when it comes to matters of faith, it is not uncommon to encounter a situation where there is a clash of interests between religion and what is considered socially acceptable, or necessary to avoid anarchy and discord in the society.
For instance, the Gospels and other scriptures in the Christian Holy writ record numerous occasions where controversy surrounding the Sabbath is mentioned.
Although teachers of the law in the Old Testament came up with a raft of dos and don’ts on how Israelites ought to behave on this designated day of rest and worship, there were some that felt the laws were draconian.
Decades later, Jesus Christ was forced to add his voice to the debate when, in the company of Pharisees and law experts, he was confronted by a sick man on the Sabbath.
The 14th chapter in the book of Luke quotes Jesus’ philosophical reasoning on whether or not it was lawful to heal the sick on the Sabbath.
He asked the Pharisees who were watching closely to see if He would break the law: “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” And they could not reply. (Luke 14:5 NIV)
But the controversy did not end there, for two centuries later, a Tanzanian court has to arbitrate in a not so unsimilar matter.
In the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses students from Shikula Secondary School and a number of their colleagues from other schools in the region, the scholars desisted from singing the national anthem during the morning assembly.
They attended school assembly, but stood quietly and respectfully, when other students sang, Mungu ibariki Afrika; Mungu ibariki Tanzania etc.
According to the Court of Appeal ruling, a copy of which Sound Living obtained, the students neither caused disturbance during the singing, nor did they show any disrespect to other students who sang the anthem.
But the Shikula Secondary School Board expelled five of the students. The other 122 were subjected to various disciplinary measures.
The students appealed to the Regional Education Appeal Board. But their appeal was dismissed on the ground that their refusal to sing the anthem was against the Constitution; that it was also against Education Circular No. 4 of 1998 issued by the Commissioner of Education.
A bid to seek recourse from the ministry of Education also hit a brick wall after they were told to go back to school and write letters committing themselves to singing the national anthem.
But the students would not take that. Instead, they approached the Prime Minister’s office on 6 November 2008. It was here, where they were advised to seek redress at the High Court.
There are probably many such cases where students clash with school authorities over religious beliefs. Many are probably rarely talked about.
Walk a fine line
A member of the Seventh Adventist Church, Christian Gideon says there are many occasions when students walk a fine line trying to balance book matters and matters of faith.
“I have personally missed a lot of exams in college because they were scheduled to be written on Saturdays, which is our Sabbath,” he tells Sound Living. To keep the Sabbath holy, SDAs refrain from all secular work on Saturday and spend much of Friday afternoon in preparation for the Sabbath. The Protestant Christian denomination is distinguished from much of the Christian community by its observance of Saturday, rather than Sunday, as its day of worship.
“There are many students right now who are going through what I went through in school, but they cannot do anything about it. I think this is trampling on their rights,” says Gideon.
According to the SDA East African Union website; “The seventh-day Sabbath (Saturday) is given as a reminder of the God who both creates and saves, and is the day God invites all to come and worship Him. Jesus observed the seventh-day Sabbath while on earth, and Adventists follow His example in keeping the fourth of the Ten Commandments.”
Prof James Jesse, a law lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, observes that the controversy surrounding school and religion is a human rights issue. But he is quick to point out that the law is not specific on the extent to which this is applicable to school and work.
“Every human being has the right to worship and belong to any religion he or she likes. But at the same time the law does not specify or justify on specific issues such as a person can or cannot go to school or work because of his religion,” he says.
It may be a difficult balance to make. But there are many who believe that in school, rules are rules, and they must be followed, period.
Adamu Kagoye, the director of Msigani Secondary Schools is of the opinion that when it comes to school, religious beliefs must not be allowed to stand in the way of students’ learning.
“Schools follow rules and government policy. We appreciate the fact that everyone is entitled to their religion, but the question is: Must we allow religion to be above the law?”
He regrets the fact that students often find themselves caught between their faith and school rules, not knowing what to do. “God ordered us to obey authority; this includes obeying the rules and regulations made in and for school,” he argues.