For our purposes we can substitute the word “people” with the word “state”.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines a sectarian as, “a person who
very strongly supports the religious or political group that they are a member
of, in a way that may cause problems with people of other groups.”
At the inaugural meeting on the Kaipara District Council’s
Council meeting the New Mayor intervened when the newly elected Maori Ward
Councillor attempted to recite, without notice or consent, a Karakia.
The Mayor justified his action as follows,” This is a council that’s full of people who are non-religious, religious, of different ethnicities and I intend to run a secular council here which respects everybody and I will not be veering from that .”
The Mayor's actions created a furore of responses from all of
the people you would expect including the Race Relations Commissioner who
invoked the Treaty of Waitangi without referencing which of the articles of the
Treaty supported his claim.
The question raised by the incident is twofold:
Was the Mayor correct to assert that New Zealand is a secular society?
What is the nature of a Karakia?
I don’t think we need to expend too much energy on whether
or not New Zealand is a secular society. The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act
1990 guarantees the right for all New Zealand citizens to freedom of religion
and in so doing the freedom not to have a religion. It is a private matter for
each individual either separately or collectively in private with other
like-minded people and is of no concern to the state.
The “state” is all encompassing.
National government and all the institutions of the national
government as well as local government and all of the institutions of local
What then is the nature of a Karakia?
The Te Aka Maori Dictionary defines the verb Karakia as
follows, “to recite ritual chants, say grace,pray,recite a prayer,chant.”
The noun is described as, “incantation, ritual chant, chant,
intoned incantation, charm, spell - a set form of words to state or make
effective a ritual activity.”
Traditionally a karakia starts with an invocation of the “
atua” (gods of which there are many).
It is not for me to have an opinion on what gods a person
wishes to worship. That is their private business.
But it is, in my opinion, my right to not be compelled when
performing a function either as an elected representative or an employee of any
state organisation to be subjected to what is in essence a religious prayer or
chant which is intended to herald a “ritual Activity”.
For the sake of this article I use “ religion”and”spirituality”
as being synonymous.
The business of government is not a “ritual activity”.
The same objection is raised for any other form of prayer in
the same circumstances no matter what the particular faith or culture is.
In the same vein the invocation of the gods by Met Service to explain to the population of New Zealand:
“CYCLONE GABRIELLE - All you need to know about what Tawhirimatea (Atua of winds) has in store for us over the next few days.
Tawhirimatea and all our Atua Maori are just doing their thing!
Respect the natural laws and natural behaviour of our Atua and our Taiao.
Stay calm, be wise and look after each other. Like all storms this too shall pass.”
One would think the function of the Met service, an
instrument of the State, is to apply the scientific knowledge it has
accumulated over centuries to forecast the weather for the benefit of all New Zealanders,
not to engage in mythology and philosophising.
What then is the
answer to the question posed at the being of this article?
I look forward to receiving the readers input to this debate
in a respectful manner of course.
Graeme Reeves is a lawyer and former National MP.