The Fiji Mission Executive Committee held an emergency meeting on June 8, 2021, to discuss the next steps in the long-running legal case centered on Vatuvonu Seventh-day Adventist College.
The meeting was called in response to the June 3 decision by the Fiji Court of Appeal to overturn a previous Hight Court ruling that the appointment of state-funded teachers in any school established by a faith-based organization must be approved by the faith-based organization.
The Court of Appeal held that “any religious community which receives assistance from the state in the form of teachers cannot interfere in the appointment of such teachers, nor can the religious community refuse to accept the appointment of teachers on the ground of religion or religious belief or any other prohibited ground of discrimination.”
The ruling is being described as a landmark judgment, as it was interpreted within the provisions of the Fiji Constitution. Effectively it means that all teachers paid by the government are seen as civil servants and thus cannot be seen to promote a specific religious worldview. The curriculum must also be taught with a secular perspective. The only way Adventist schools can teach Bible is for the church to pay those teachers separately from the government.
A statement released in the evening of June 8 by Fiji Mission secretary Ronald Stone and associate mission secretary Epeli Saukuru said that after much prayer and deliberation, the Executive Committee selected a sub-committee to deeply study the pros and cons of four possible options available against the ruling of the Court of Appeal. Based on their recommendations, the Executive Committee (EXCOM) will meet again on June 14 to make a final decision.
“Therefore, we earnestly request you all to pray for God’s guidance and wisdom,” Stone and Saukuru wrote in their statement. “Please pray for the sub-committee as they scrutinize and formulate important information and recommendations. Let us also pray for the EXCOM as they will make the final decision for the church moving forward.”
The Vatuvonu case has been the subject of debate within the Fijian legal system since 2019. It has significant implications not just for Adventist schools but for the entire education system in Fiji, which is largely run by faith-based organizations. Currently, the Fiji government operates a universal free education system in which it pays staff wages and funds schools around the country. Under its Open Merit Recruitment Selection System, the government chooses principals and teaching staff to fill vacancies at both government and faith-based schools.
South Pacific Division education director David McClintock said the Court of Appeal ruling has major ramifications beyond the initial challenge of staffing appointments at Vatuvonu.
“While the initial court case was simply about the right for Fiji Mission to be involved in discussions on staffing, the broader reach to the Constitution and its emphasis on a secular society has brought in the unintended consequences of restricting all civil servants in matters of religion,” he said. “Thus, our core reason for existence and the evangelistic nature of our school system are now removed.”
The Fiji Mission has 42 days to lodge an appeal to the Supreme Court from the day the Court of Appeal decision was handed down.