Freedom of religion still not free at some schools

Posted on : 2007-07-20 16:15 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Civic groups, students challenging rules and asking for guarantees on choice of religious education

Students’ freedom of religion is still being violated at some secondary schools and colleges in the nation, despite the government’s suggestion that this right be protected. Some Christian colleges have even installed closed circuit television (CCTV) in chapels to monitor students’ behavior during their lessons.

Civil groups, including the Korea Institute for Religious Freedom and the Citizens’ Coalition for Religious Freedom in School, held a press conference in front of Daekwang High School in Sinseol-dong, Seoul, on July 19 to urge the school to guarantee freedom of religion on the campus.

The school, which is run by a Christian organization, was involved in a controversy over its restrictive policies on freedom of religion in 2004. Kang Ui-seok, 22, who was a senior at the time and is now a college student, held a sit-in and carried out a hunger strike at the school for 45 days, in protest against the school’s requirement that all students participate in religious activities, regardless of their religious preference. He was expelled from the school before the courts ruled that the school’s policy was illegal. His story then hit the nation, raising the issue of freedom of religion for students of Christian schools. In Korea, students do not have much choice in the high school they want to attend, under the regulation that students must attend a neighborhood school designated by the authorities. This regulation is carried out with very few exceptions, though the student’s designated school may be affiliated with a different religion than their own. This regulation has been justified in part by the fact that public schools make up just 55 percent of the nation’s high schools.

During the press conference, a senior at a Christian high school identified only by his surname, Lee, said, “We are forced to choose a religious subject and take part in chapel every week. When these practices started causing problems, the school made a false report to the educational authorities.”

The controversy is also spilling over into colleges. Sungkyul University, which is located in Anyang, Gyeonggi Province and associated with a Protestant church, installed CCTV to confirm whether or not its students were attending chapel. Through its Internet site, the university warns that students disrupting the chapel atmosphere by using mobile phones, sleeping or reading books will be treated as though they are not present and their attendance will not be counted.

Kim Hye-min, a student at SungKongHoe University, which is affiliated with the Anglican Church, said, “We are obliged to attend chapel classes for four semesters in order to graduate.” Kim said that a recent survey of 289 students at the university conducted by him showed 147 students, or 50.9 percent of all students, did not know that classes in religion were obligatory before they entered school. In response, an official with the Christian school said that the school notified the applicants of the school’s requirements for chapel class upon receiving the applications.

A public notice released in 1997 by the Ministry of Education & Human Resources Development recommended that schools providing instruction in religion also offer some alternatives and allow students the right to take other kinds of classes.

Sohn Sang-hun, an official at the Korea Institute for Religious Freedom, said, “Given that some religious schools continue to disregard the ministry’s mandate, we need to make a law protecting students’ religious freedom.”

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