Judge orders public schools to exempt SDA students in row over Sabbath

Alliance High School has denied claims it doesn’t accord SDA students the right to freedom of worship and religion. [Photo: File/Standard]

By Pamela Chepkemei

Nairobi, Kenya: Secondary school students who subscribe to Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) church are exempt from weekend classes thanks to a landmark order by a judge hearing a dispute over Sabbath.

High Court Judge Isaac Lenaola directed all public secondary schools in the country to allow SDA faithful students to skip classes from Friday evening through Saturday in fulfilment of the obligation to their faith.

The order was made after the Seventh Day Adventist Church (East Africa) Limited filed a petition seeking a relaxation of the rules for SDA student worship while a case between them and Ministry of Education progresses in court.

The Church approached the Ministry last year to resolve the matter but the Government failed to act on the complaints, according to the Church.

The Government promised to issue a circular to all the principals of public schools asking them to respect the right to freedom of religion but it was never done.

Consequently, the Church decided to file a case to safeguard the fundamental rights of all students subscribing the SDA doctrine.

The Church has accused 25 public schools of violating the fundamental rights of SDA students studying in those learning institutions.

It claims the complaints by Adventist students of being bullied and harassed are replicated across all public schools countrywide.

It was alleged SDA students at public high schools are harassed, intimidated and discriminated against on account of their religious beliefs.

Denied rights

The court issued interim orders restraining principals, administrators and Board of Governors of all public schools from preventing SDA students from worshipping during the hours between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday pending the hearing and determination of the petition.

“All principals, administrators and BoGs of all public high schools be and are hereby restrained from in any manner whatsoever, preventing or impeding SDA students attending the schools in question from conducting worship during the hours between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday,” said the judge.

The Church has named the minister for Education and the Attorney General as the respondents.

Already Alliance Boys’ High School, one of the learning institutions accused by the Church, has been allowed to join the proceedings of the case as an interested party.

The school told Justice Lenaola it was apprehensive that adverse orders would be issued against it before it was heard.

Religious beliefs

The school is among 25 others that have been cited by the Church as having forced students to study or sit exams on Friday evenings and Saturdays in disregard of their religious beliefs. Other schools accused of discriminating against SDA students are Limuru Girls’, Kenya High, Alliance Girls’, Alliance Boys’, Precious Blood Riruta and Sunshine secondary schools.

Through lawyer George Oraro, SDA church in Kenya seeks a declaration that SDA students are entitled to their fundamental rights to worship without any hindrance.

Pastor Samwel Makori, the church Executive Secretary, says the harassment, intimidation, bullying and punishment of Adventist students has escalated to distressing levels.

“In July 2012, Alliance Boys’ High suspended two Adventist students who declined to attend Saturday classes and, therefore, failed to take exams which were conducted on that day,” says Makori.

The clergyman said from 2011 onwards, public schools in a variety of ways sought to restrict and in some instances wholly curtail the opportunities available for Adventist students to worship and fellowship during the Sabbath hours, he added.

He claimed that Adventist students were being denied the right to practice their faith in accordance with the fundamental tenets of their religion.

“In all these schools, adherents of other Christian faiths whose day of worship is on Sunday are given the full opportunity and facilities to practice their faith in accordance with the fundamental tenets their respective churches,” Makori says.

The complaints have been raised to the affected schools by parents of affected students and local church pastors with very little success, the Church petition says.

But Alliance High School in response denies the allegations. The school principal David Kariuki says it has always allowed SDA students to practice their religious beliefs.

“The school has since its founding 87 years ago afforded students of all faiths, SDA students included, reasonable and ample programmes to worship as is appropriate and within the carefully designed school programmes which take into account students of all faiths,” says Kariuki.

Court orders

The school wants to be given an opportunity to participate in the proceedings because the orders sought directly affects the administration of Alliance High School as well as its programmes.

“We are apprehensive the court may issue orders against the school without giving him an opportunity to be heard,” said Mr Kariuki.

The court directed the school to respond to the petition within seven days. The case will be mentioned on June 6 when Justice Lenaola will give further directions.