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Keeping religion out of end of term ceremonies

Published onsdag 5 juni 2013 kl 09.00
End of the school year ceremony in Litslena church outside Enköping, Photo: Mons Brunius/Scanpix

The Swedish school year is coming to an end, and schools around the country will be holding ceremonies to mark the occasion. Once again, there are concerns over whether it is appropriate to hold those ceremonies in religious surroundings.

Traditionally the ceremonies at the end of the school year in Sweden have been held in local churches. Back when virtually everyone in the country was a member of the Lutheran Church of Sweden it made sense with prayers, sermons, and hymns.

But that was another Sweden, and today children from families who are atheist, Jewish, Moslem, or even Roman Catholic often object to the Protestant religious surroundings. Many schools have moved their ceremonies out of churches, others may keep the locale, but try to keep the religion out of it.

A government study is underway to establish where the boundaries should be. But in the meantime there’s still some uncertainty.

Matz Nilsson, president of the Swedish Association of School Principals and Directors of Education, says this can be difficult for the principals: "They’ve wound up in a legal gray zone," he says. "They have to take responsibility for something that’s ambiguous in the law. They want to get away from this, which is why we welcome that this is being reviewed once and for all. And we’ll see what the study recommends."

The debate over tradition and religion in school intensified half a year ago, just before Christmas, when the National Agency for Education released new guidelines for activities like end of school year ceremonies. These were based on the new school law, which says that education in schools and preschools shall be non-confessional, that is, with no religious elements.

So, under the guidelines, a school ceremony can be held in a church, but only if the minister doesn’t offer a prayer or blessing. On the other hand, the agency says it’s alright to sing the traditional song “Den blomstertid nu kommer”, “Now the time of blossoming arrives, even though it’s a Lutheran hymn.

But many have objected to the guidelines. The Christian newspaper Dagen launched a campaign called the Advent Appeal, protesting that Christian elements were being forbidden at, for example, Christmas end of term ceremonies. And even Education Minister Jan Björklund was among the critics. He argued that a minister ought to be able to tell children why Christmas is celebrated, and read from the appropriate passages in the Bible.

It was against that background that the government study was commissioned in January.

Matz Nilsson of the principals’ and head teachers’ association hopes that the study comes to the same conclusion that the National Agency for Education arrived at:

"We want some clarity as to what is meant by non-confessional elements," he says. "Sermons, prayers, and things like that, we can see that they don’t belong in an end of term ceremony. But the song 'Den blomstertid nu kommer', it’s a hymn, but we think it’s a must. So what we need is clarification."

Matz Nilsson is critical of education minister Björklund getting involved in this debate. He says it creates uncertainty. And even if most principals don’t see a problem with the end of school year ceremonies, Matz Nilsson says it is an important question.

"Unfortunately there have been two serious incidents," he says. "One principal received a death threat, another left their job, because of not knowing if there was support for their position. So that’s what we want to get away from, Matz Nilsson says. The principal is responsible for making decisions, but those decisions have to be based on clear legal grounds that are not open for interpretation."

Our journalism is based on credibility and impartiality. Swedish Radio is independent and not affiliated to any political, religious, financial, public or private interests.
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