The constitution, comprising several basic laws, states that religious expression is “subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” The constitution provides the right to manifest religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching, either individually or in community with others, and either in public or in private. The law prohibits discrimination based on religious belief. According to the law, religious practices may not breach the peace.
The government does not require the licensing or registration of religious groups; however, for a religious group to collect money for any charitable purpose, including the advancement of its religion, and obtain tax benefits, it must register with the Department of Internal Affairs as a charitable trust. The registration must provide the rules of the organization showing it is a nonprofit organization and a list of officers free from conflict of interest who will not put their own interests above the organization. There is no fee.
The law provides that “teaching in every state [public] primary school must, while the school is open, be entirely of a secular character.” A public primary school may close, including during normal school hours, for up to one hour per week, up to a total of 20 hours per year, to devote to religious instruction or religious observance, to be conducted in a manner approved by the school’s board of trustees. If a public primary school provides religious instruction or observes religious customs, it must allow students to opt out. Religious instruction or observance, if provided, usually takes place outside normal school hours. Public secondary schools may provide limited religious instruction and observances within certain parameters that ensure they do not discriminate against anyone who does not share that belief.
Individuals may file complaints of unlawful discrimination, including on the basis of religious belief, to the HRC. The HRC’s mandate includes assuring equal treatment of all religious groups under the law, protecting the right to safety for religious individuals and communities, promoting freedom of religious expression and reasonable accommodation for religious groups, and promoting religious tolerance in education. In the event a complaint is not resolved satisfactorily with the assistance of HRC mediation, the complainant may proceed to the HRRT. The tribunal has the authority to issue restraining orders, award monetary damages, or declare a breach of the Human Rights Act through a report to parliament. Conduct prohibited by the Human Rights Act (e.g., workplace discrimination) may also be prosecuted under other applicable laws. In addition to the HRC dispute resolution mechanism, a complainant may initiate proceedings in the court system; in exceptional circumstances, HRRT cases may be relocated to the High Court.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In March the minister of justice proposed repeal of the blasphemy law, which carries a penalty of up to one year in prison, as part of broader amendments to the criminal code. As of the end of the year, a parliamentary committee was considering the amendments. In 2017, government ministers and religious leaders expressed surprise when the press reported there was such a law, which had last been used in an unsuccessful prosecution in 1922.
In July a long-running dispute over the teaching of religious education in schools was relocated from the HRRT to the High Court. The Secular Education Network (SEN) said many schools ignored legal restrictions on religious instruction. Unlike previous complaints targeting individual school boards, the SEN stated the HRC had not appropriately taken action against “state-sanctioned religious bias” by the Ministry of Education, or against alleged conflict between those sections of the Education Act authorizing religious instruction in state schools and the right of protection from discrimination due to religious beliefs in the more recent Bill of Rights Act. The court took no decision during the year.
In September the Ministry of Education released draft guidelines on religious instruction in state primary schools to help clarify boards of trustees’ legal obligations when allowing religious instruction, and to help trustees develop best practices regarding how to offer religious instruction. The draft guidelines provide guidance on how to enable the closure of schools during delivery of religious instruction in a way that reduces the possibility of discrimination.
In February the government announced the creation of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Historical Abuse of Children in State Care, for those youth who had been in detention centers, psychiatric hospitals, and orphanages. The royal commission, the highest level of government inquiry, is focusing on physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and neglect, and systemic bias based on race, gender, or sexual orientation during the period 1950 to 1999. After lobbying from Catholic and Anglican Church leaders, the government broadened the mandate of the royal commission to include faith-based institutions.
The New Zealand First Party, a government coalition partner, proposed the Respecting New Zealand Values Bill, which would require immigrants to agree to keep several “New Zealand values,” including freedom of religion. Critics said some of the values listed in the bill were anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim, including one that would prohibit campaigning against alcohol consumption. The prime minister said the ruling Labour Party would not support the bill.
Historically, every parliamentary session had begun with a Christian prayer, but in February the new speaker of the house allowed a nondenominational blessing.