Scripture lobbyist advocates education policies on new faith advisory body

Si Gladman / 03 June 2024

A prominent lobbyist for scripture in New South Wales’ public schools is leading efforts to influence education policies through his position on the state government’s Faith Affairs Council.

Documents obtained by the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) under freedom of information laws show that Murray Norman (pictured) put himself forward to head the Education Working Group on the state’s Faith Affairs Council, billed as a “solutions warehouse” for matters involving religion.

Mr Norman has long been heavily involved in lobbying for Special Religious Education (SRE) through various entities. He is the head of lobby groups Better Balanced Futures and Faith NSW. Better Balanced Futures has focused its lobbying activities on advocating for SRE. Faith NSW, described online as a new peak body to advocate the “common interests” of the state’s faith groups, launched in October last year.

On the Faith Affairs Council, he is officially the representative of Inter-Church Commission on Religious Education in Schools, which facilitates consultation and cooperation between Christian churches on SRE matters, and provides representation to the Department of Education’s SRE Consultative Committee.

The documents obtained from Multiculturalism NSW show that Mr Norman submitted an agenda item for a Faith Affairs Council meeting on 31 January this year proposing an Education Working Group “to act as a liaison” between the education department and the Faith Affairs Council.

Mr Norman wrote that the Education Working Group’s work was to include:

  • “ensuring that the [public school] enrolment form includes an optional question on religious identity”; 
  • “ensuring the enrolment form includes options for SRE, so that parents have choice in faith education for their child”;
  • “strategies…in dealing with religious bullying and vilification”;
  • “Other matters as raised in the bi-annual meeting with Education Minister”.

The Minns government appointed Mr Norman as one of 19 religious representatives to the Faith Affairs Council late last year, with the advisory body given a direct line to government decision-makers. The government blocked an atheist leader’s nomination for a position on the body.

The RSA has last week asked Multiculturalism NSW to provide a register of interests for Faith Affairs Council members. 

SRE participation rates are in decline in New South Wales, sparking calls for SRE to be moved outside normal learning time.

Recent media reports have revealed that large majorities of students are forced to halt their normal curriculum as small minorities – less than two per cent of pupils in many schools – take part in SRE.

Almost 1500 people signed a petition on the state parliament website calling for reform.

The Minns government has so far ignored calls from public education stakeholders and parents for SRE to be moved to outside normal learning hours. 

Education minister and Deputy Premier Prue Car has publicly ruled out any changes to SRE, telling a budget estimates hearing last year that New South Wales would not follow Victoria’s decision to move scripture to outside learning time.

According to the agenda for the meeting in late January, the Faith Affairs Council was also set to discuss chaplaincy in schools.

Prior to the 2023 state election, Labor’s spokesperson for multiculturalism – and now minister – Steve Kamper told Catholic media that the Faith Affairs Council would deliver “additional funding for chaplaincy”.

Si Gladman is Executive Director of the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

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Image: ChristianSRE NSW (screengrab, Vimeo)

All the more reason.