Nairobi, Kenya
Religion Unplugged

In Western Kenya, a group of atheists want to protect religious freedom.

After a principal suspended 17 Seventh-day Adventist students for refusing to sit for exams held on Saturday, when they observe sabbath, the country’s main association of atheists threatened to sue him for infringing on the students’ religious freedom.

Atheists in Kenya Society (AIK) gave the head teacher a seven-day ultimatum to rescind his decision or face legal action - he rescinded and readmitted the students in late January.

The drama began when Dr John Oloo, principal of Kabianga High School, announced that he had suspended the students after they boycotted a standardised exam and instead went to worship at a Seventh-day Adventist church. A distinguishing practice of Adventists from other Christians is their observance of the Jewish calendar, which includes Saturday worship and rest from work.

Oloo had argued that he instructed the students to sit for the exams before their Sabbath started, at 5:30am. But the Seventh-day Adventist Church keeps the sabbath from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, believing God set apart the seventh day of the creation week to be a day of rest to honor him.

Oloo told media that there are specific missionary schools for parents who feel aggrieved by the school’s requirements. The church traces its origin to the American Baptist preacher William Miller, who warned the world would end in the mid-1840s according to his interpretation of the Book of Daniel. When that proved wrong, Miller’s followers split into smaller groups, one of which eventually became the Seventh-day Adventist church.

While those of the Adventist conviction felt that the principal had gone overboard, others felt that treating the SDA students differently could lead to chaos.

“All public schools should be de-religionised so as to operate freely without religious inclinations and other ridiculous religious doctrines and practices,” analyst Jimmy Arianda said.

Then the atheist group waded into the controversy demanding the students’ suspension be revoked, surprising both sides.

“The constitution allows freedom of worship. Religious freedoms must be protected,” AIK President Harrison Mumia said. “The cultural majority should be prevented from denying others freedom of worship and belief.”

Mumia is known in Kenya for criticizing Christians and the idea that God exists.

Article 32 of Kenya’s Constitution states that every person has the right to freedom of religion and belief, including the right to manifest those beliefs through observing a day of worship, and no person may be denied access to an institution because of that person’s religion or belief.

Last year, a court in the city Eldoret ordered Chebisas Boys High School to readmit five SDA students suspended for refusing to sit for exams on Saturday. Their parents had filed a suit at the Eldoret High Court calling the suspension a violation of their constitutional freedom of worship.

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Another court battle involving an SDA student is on the horizon after a school just out of Nairobi suspended a candidate for this year’s secondary education exams because she opted to go to church on a Saturday instead of class.

Paul Misati said his daughter Naomi transferred to Enoomatasiani Secondary School in January this year.  On the first Saturday of the term, the young Adventist sought to be exempted from class so she could go to church, but the headmistress rejected her request. On Saturday the deputy principal allowed her to go for the church service, but when she came back she was already expelled.

“I have taken up the issue with the Ministry of Education and legal action is one of the options open to us,” Misati said. “All that we want as a family is that she goes back to school as soon as possible.”

Tom Osanjo is a Nairobi-based correspondent for Religion Unplugged. He is a former parliamentary reporter and has covered sports, politics and more at Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper.