Hon. Martin Dixon
Minister for Education
Melbourne, Vic. 3002
By email: [email protected]
Copy: Richard Bolt; Carol Kelly; Kris Arcaro
1 September 2014
Re: Amendments to MD 141
On 28 July 2014, we wrote to you regarding the operation of Special Religious Instruction (SRI) with a constructive suggestion about how to settle this increasingly vexed issue – viz, to form a Committee comprising religious and non-religious stakeholders charged with conducting a public consultation about religious education in Victorian government schools. To date, we have not had the courtesy of a response, nor even acknowledgement of our letter.
In our 28 July letter, we welcomed the issue of Ministerial Direction 141, clarifying as it does the authority of principals to decide whether they have sufficient resources to run SRI and requiring improvements to information to parents to make clear SRI is not education but instruction in the tenets of a particular religion.
We are now writing to express our dismay at the further amendments to MD 141 issued on 19 August 2014.
Issues to be clarified
We refer to the updated Special Religious Instruction Policy that accompanies the amendments to MD141. This policy states that you, as Minister, will approve instructors provided by accredited Providers. Minister, using what criteria will you approve instructors?
The policy further states that instructors must not “induce or attempt to induce any student to convert to a particular religion.” We presume this policy is not to be interpreted in a facile way – ie, that attempting to “convert to a particular religion” is not to be interpreted as converting from an existing religion to another religion, but that it includes inducing or attempting to induce non-religious children to convert to being religious.
Even a cursory examination of the ACCESS Ministries materials shows that this is just what they intend: to convince children that a particular religion is true and that children should actively engage in that religion. Former ACCESS Ministries CEO Yvonne Paddison’s now notorious statement that schools are “the greatest mission field … for disciple-making” clearly revealed this intent, albeit perhaps inadvertently. Minister, how will you ensure the materials used by ACCESS Ministries, or indeed by any SRI provider, do not “induce or attempt to induce any student to convert to a particular religion”?
Further, the amended policy states that “recognised” sacred texts may be displayed at a school. Minister, who decides what a “recognised” text is and what criteria will be used? For example, would the Big Rescue Bible be judged a “recognised” sacred text?
Most worryingly, the policy also states that students may display and distribute material that “has the effect of promoting religious practice”, and students may “advertise” and “establish and meet in groups which promote a particular religion, such as prayer groups, youth groups, clubs, information sessions or workshops”, and that “outside speakers or facilitators” may visit such groups. Minister, how will you prevent active proselytising by students engaging in such activities, and will you prevent proselytising by adults invited into schools by such students?
As we said in our letter of 28 July, it is unlikely the public anger and media exposure about SRI will die down. Despite ACCESS Ministries’ protestations that they have been merely “misunderstood”, the fact remains their duty as evangelical Christians is to induce the ‘unchurched’ to become actively religious. This is inconsistent with your own policy, as explained above, and inconsistent with a genuinely secular public education system.
We have made a constructive suggestion about how this contentious issue might be handled: conduct a proper public consultation with a view to replacing SRI with professionally developed course on Ethics and Religious Culture, delivered by professionally trained teachers.
We continue to look forward to your response to this constructive suggestion.
Dr Meredith Doig
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.