Schools Should Respect Students' Right to Choose
The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion in South Korea just as in other secular countries. But this freedom has long been denied in schools founded and run by religious groups to the chagrin of students and their parents. But now, such schools can no longer afford to force children to attend religious classes or services against their will.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a 24-year-old college student who filed a suit against the high school he previously attended for violating his religious freedom. The court stated that all schools should respect students' right to choose. It said the school violated his religious freedom by forcing him to attend religious events.
The winner in the five-year court battle is Kang We-suck, a former student at Daegwang High School in Seoul. He was expelled from the Protestant-run school in 2004 for fasting for 46 days in protest against forced religious education. The student leader basked in the spotlight for his cause of advocating religious freedom.
As the court noted, many students have so far been coerced to take part in religious events against their will in many schools across the nation. This has been the source of grievances among students worshiping religions different from those of their schools as well as nonbelievers. The religious rights of students have often been ignored as they have been assigned to schools through a lottery system.
The real problem is that schools affiliated with different religious organizations have required students to participate in services and events without considering their religious orientation. The schools have, in fact, neglected to meet the guidelines set by the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology that are designed to ensure students' religious rights.
The ruling is the first of its kind to put the brakes on the illegal practice by schools to disregard not only the guidelines and the Constitution. From now on, alternative subjects or programs should be offered to those who do not want to attend their schools' religious classes and activities.
There are currently about 390 religious schools, including 235 operated by Protestants, 64 by Catholics and 30 by Buddhists. These schools must be more faithful to the constitutional freedom of religion and the spirit of equal educational opportunities for students with different beliefs as well as nonbelievers.