Religious instruction has no place in the education state

Meredith Doig / 16 January 2015

The promise from our new Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, to make Victoria the “education state” is both welcome and timely.

But one aspect of education that is increasingly worrying parents is the place of Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in Victorian government schools: 42 per cent have withdrawn their children from SRI over the last 12 months, leaving fewer than one in six enrolled (The Age, 21/12/2014), after the government issued a more detailed “opt-in” form to parents that explained the distinction between “religious instruction” and “religious education” and made it clear that participation was voluntary.

People have started to stand up for a genuinely secular education system, not one that allows for religious indoctrination ‘under the radar’. Over the last decade or so, SRI has changed. Some may remember ‘RE’ in the olden days: benign, boring and eminently forgettable. Not so anymore. SRI, at least the Christian version operated by ACCESS Ministries, could fairly be described as ‘muscular’ – a much more aggressive form of intervention that essentially seeks to turn the local government school into a local church. Religious providers of SRI cling to their legislative mandate to be in schools; secular parents fight for their kids to have nothing to do with it; principals worry about the educational quality of what they see in SRI sessions.

Victorians have good reason to expect the new government to fix this ongoing problem. Unfortunately, Labor has form on this matter.

Many would not be aware of the legislative sleight-of-hand perpetrated by a former Labor Minister when she brought in the updated Education and Training Reform Act in 2006. The Act sensibly reiterated the long-standing policy that “education in Government schools must be secular and not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect”. So far, so good. But it prefaced this statement with the weasel phrase: “Except as provided in section 2.2.11”.

When we look at section 2.2.11 we find that it permits what it calls ‘Special Religious Instruction’, which is defined as “instruction provided by churches and other religious groups and based on distinctive religious tenets and beliefs”‘.

This means the Act has an absurd logical form. It is like saying: “Section 1: Except as provided in Section 2, robbery is not permitted; Section 2: Robbery is permitted”. It is hard to imagine how such nonsense got through our allegedly rational parliament. The only thing that might explain such a dereliction of parliamentary duty is the fact that the Act in question is nearly 500 pages long, but there is no excuse for such a failure to scrutinise.

This is not the worst of it. Most reasonable people, including non-religious people, would see a place in the school curriculum for ‘General Religious Education’ which is defined in the Act as “education about major forms of religious thought and expression”. We would add one rider: that atheism, rationalism and humanism be included in such study along with other “forms of religious thought and expression”. Many would argue freedom of religious belief requires such education, because freedom implies informed choice and if people are not familiar with the range of alternative religious and non-religious systems, then they are not freely choosing their beliefs.

Having paid lip-service to General Religious Education in the Act, successive Education Ministers have then done nothing about it. Instead, the Education Department has blundered on with SRI, ducking this way and that in response to parental outrage and principals’ concerns on the one hand, and pressure from religious lobby groups defending their turf on the other.

The reasons for parental outrage and principal concern have been well documented. Consider this picture: an SRI volunteer arrives at a school to conduct their weekly session, and the class is divided up – those doing SRI stay in the classroom and those not doing SRI (even if they are the majority) must get up and go somewhere else. By law, those who are forced to leave are not allowed to do other lessons because this may give them an advantage over those doing SRI!

Further, the main provider of SRI, ACCESS Ministries, was caught out facilitating entry of evangelist group OAC Ministries into government primary schools. OAC believes “young people have great potential as active agents in God’s mission”] and use puppetry, music and drama to get across their message. As reported by The Age (17/8/14), materials that describe homosexuality, masturbation and sex before marriage as a sin were handed out as gifts by ACCESS volunteers. The Education Department was forced to issue clarifying rules of access.

And then there’s the matter of the materials used in SRI. Those used by ACCESS Ministries are ‘cutesy’ to say the least – lots of cartoons, games and references to celebrities. But far from being innocent, this format precisely mirrors a very sophisticated strategic plan, summarised in a paper called “The Evangelization of Children” published in 2004 by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.

This paper states unequivocally that: “evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of Christian duty”. It urges that children “be discipled no matter how diverse their family or faith background” because “children are more open and receptive to the gospel that at any other time in their lives.”

No wonder parents are concerned.

The time is right to fix this unholy nonsense once and for all. If the new Labor Government genuinely wants Victoria to be the “education state”, it should abandon religious indoctrination, in the form of SRI, and instead work with religious and non-religious groups of goodwill to develop a world class curriculum to educate Victorian children about the range of religious and non-religious world views present in Victoria’s successful multicultural society.

All the more reason.