Strangely, it was not an atheist who launched the constitutional application seeking to stop the daily ritual but a God-fearing father who objected to his children having to “worship a graven image”.
Mathew Sogolani said this infringed his parental right to determine the upbringing of his children according to his religious beliefs.
The Constitutional Court agreed with him and ruled, further, that the pledge infringed on the rights to freedom of religion of children who belong to faiths that do not embrace the belief in the existence of God, or God at all.
And, while the saluting of the national flag and saying of religious words in the pledge were not per se unconstitutional, they were made so by the fact that education authorities had deemed them to be compulsory, the court said.
The ritual first began in 2016 when all schoolchildren were compelled to memorise and recite the pledge at assemblies every day. The avowed purpose was to “inculcate” feelings of patriotism and other ethical precepts such as honesty and dignity and hard work.
There was no provision for any exemption.
Sogolani, a member of the Apostolic Faith Mission, argued that a precept of his and his children’s faith was that a secular object “must not be saluted” and that worship must be reserved for God only.
While he had no desire to show disrespect for the national flag and his country, the fact that his children were being forced to do this was tormenting him, he argued.
His application was opposed by education authorities in the country. They argued that his objections were misplaced because the pledge was not a prayer and was part of “appropriate education”.
“They argue that it is simply a creed which testifies to the religious, cultural and historical beliefs of the people of Zimbabwe,” the judges said.
“They say it is necessary for nation-building and is a way of inculcating feelings of patriotism.
“The words ‘Almighty God’, they say, did not constitute an attempt to officially promote a particular religious belief,” the judges said.
In considering both sides of the argument, the judges said the State must adopt a position of “neutrality” in matters of religion while a parent was entitled to decide how a child should be brought up.
“The court does not have to involve itself with the question whether the compulsory recitation of the pledge amounts to worshipping the national flag. The question is whether the applicant sincerely believes it.
“The respondents did not proffer evidence to contradict that it is his genuine belief.
“The State cannot compel a person to perform acts which are forbidden by the religion he or she belongs to.
“The pledge also offends the schoolchildren who do not hold belief in the existence of a supernatural power,” the court said.
“The education authorities ought to have guaranteed the dissenting pupils’ rights to decide freely not to recite the pledge.”
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