I have been following the situation with regard to the HHS scheme in the United Sates with great interest. Although we have not yet had to face anything of quite this nature here in Australia yet, I can see many parallels to challenges being mounted here at home.
In particular, there is currently a discussion going on here, which I have mentioned before on this blog, about religious educaton in public schools. Last week this situation hotted up a bit with a court case at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) challenging the provision for 30 minutes of Special Religious Education in our public primary schools. In short, this is a carry over from the days when the public school system was established. Churches (mainly protestant, since the Catholic Church had and still has its own school system) maintained that allthough run by the state, they should still have access for religious education of the children who belonged to their flock. Basically, the intention of Special Religious Education (SRI) was catechetical. Courses are run by acredited teachers belonging to that religious community, forchildren of that religious community.
There have been some changes since the early days, one of them being the increase in other religions other than Christianity. That’s okay, the law covers them too, and they have equal access as long as there are parents who want their children to receive such instruction and volunteers to offer it. Currently there are many non-Christian groups providing SRI, although this is a growing field. Jewish SRI programs are well established, and the Islamic community in Victoria is getting into gear by calling for volunteers to run SRI programs for Muslim students. All religions have equal access to SRI in Victoria. Also, the edcuation department in Victoria has recently accepted that the policy of “opt out” (rather than “opt in”) is outdated in a time when many of the students do not have a religious community. Also there is now provision for the “opt out” students to do constructive work while not attending SRI classes.
But the program has become a cause for controversy, largely because of the objection to “proselytising”. I don’t see how this can be a problem in an “opt in” situation, as the parents freely choose to send their children to such classes. The real issue seems to be that there are some secularists who regard it as improper that there should be any kind of religious catechesis offered in public schools in public time.
CHILDREN who opt out of special religious instruction (SRI) in state primary schools are being discriminated against because other children see them as different and because they do not work under proper instruction while others attend the classes, a tribunal was told yesterday.
Psychologist Sophie Aitken and two other parents whose names are suppressed have asked the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to order that the Education Department make parents explicitly opt into the classes rather than opt out, provide equivalent instruction for students who do not attend, and hold the classes at lunchtime or after school.
For the parents, Melinda Richards told the tribunal: ”The children object to being separated from their peers and losing valuable learning time.”
The Education Department argues that the first two requirements have already been met, and – in the case of Ms Aitken’s children – were being met during the time they have been at Ivanhoe East Primary School.
For the department, Rowena Orr said it made opt-in the explicit policy last August but that it had been the practice at Ivanhoe East since 2006. The department also told schools last year that children who opt out should be given proper instruction in curriculum work – but not core curriculum, so as not to disadvantage children doing SRI.
So, no problem, yes? No. The real problem – and the real push behind the case – is with the very existence of SRI in our pubic schools. And this is where the issue touches the same of the same issues our American sisters and brothers are facing. The case is put by Professor Stan van Hooft of Deakin University:
Legal action is being brought by three parents of public primary school children alleging that the Education Department segregates children on religious grounds and discriminates against those whom parents opt out of religious instruction offered by accredited religious instructors.
Three points are highlighted by this action, which is in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. The first is that schools are obliged to accept offers from outsiders to provide religious instruction. The second is that there have been no educational options for primary pupils whose parents don’t want them to receive religious instruction. The third is that Access Ministries, the evangelical Christian group that provides 97 per cent of religious instruction in Victorian public schools and provides its own training and accrediting to volunteer instructors, is on record as wanting to convert children to Jesus.
Australia is a society that guarantees freedom of religion and separation of church and state. It is a liberal society in which everyone is entitled to the religious beliefs they hold and to follow their religious practices as long as they cause no harm.
This means religion is a private matter. Public issues are those the government is charged to regulate and control because they touch on benefits or harms that affect members of society. Private matters are those that touch on the consciences or lifestyles of individuals which those individuals are entitled to pursue because they have no public impact. A liberal society should protect children in public schools from indoctrination by well-meaning religious adherents while also protecting the private right of religious groups to set up their own schools. Schools set up by a liberal state and pursuing public good should not be intruded upon by the private convictions of any groups within society.
As in the States, the issue is one of the free exercise of religion. Note van Hooft’s assertion that people are entitled to religious practice as long as it “does no harm”. The question here is what “harm” means. Is it “harmful” to teach a child about Jesus? Is it “harmful” to refuse to procure or provide products or services (eg. contraceptions and abortions) that violate religious conscience? Note too his forceful and unsupported assertion that “religion is a private matter” and hence should have no place in the public square. Van Hooft has no objection to “religious groups [setting] up their own schools” – although I will bet that he is not a supporter of Government funds being made available to such schools – but in his opinion religion belongs in such “private” schools because religion is a “private” matter. What is very interesting is that he views “religious groups” as something external to public society rather than internal and essential to it. But many of the students who attend the schools and the parents who pay for them ARE members of public society AND religious communities.
As a compromise, the secularists – and a good number of Christians whose take on Christianity makes them uncomfortable with the idea of “converting children to Jesus” etc. – are suggesting something called “General Religious Education” to be offered as part of the curriculum for all students. Again, here is van Hooft’s take on this:
There are basically two conceptions of religious instruction at play in this debate. The first is called “special religious instruction” and the second “general religious education”. Both are provided for in state government policy, but only the first is widely practised. Special religious instruction is the program Access Ministries, along with faith-based groups from other religious traditions, supplies. It involves 30 minutes of instruction a week during class time. General religious education is a classroom subject taught by regular teachers that imparts knowledge and understanding of all the major faiths in the world. It describes and compares the beliefs, practices, rituals and histories of world faiths through the disciplines of anthropology, philosophy and sociology.
Access Ministries and the other faith-based providers of special religious instruction oppose general religious education. But why? Could it be because if children were told not only that some people believe Jesus rose from the dead, but that others believe that the Prophet was carried bodily by angels from Mecca to Jerusalem, and that others believe that Moses parted the Red Sea, and that still others believe that Lord Shiva enjoys eternal youth, they will be left with a genuine choice as to what they themselves will believe? There is a reduced risk of proselytising when these beliefs are presented side by side. Indeed, children may come to see that such beliefs are about as credible as their belief in Santa Claus, in Superman and in their imaginary friends. While many young people grow out of such fantasy beliefs, they are less inclined to suspend belief in religious doctrines if they are taught in highly valued school time by persons whose generous motivations give them credibility. Children do not have the capacity to critically assess the ideas that are presented to them.
You can see where this is coming from. Despite his support for “General Religious Education”, his reference to Santa Claus and Superman indicates that he sees the purpose of such education being to show children how silly and irrational religious belief really is. Ironically, like most secularists, van Hooft is unable to see that his own position is in fact a “private conviction” which he and others who share his views are attempting to foist on the rest of us.
I am personally all in favour of “General Religious Education” in our schools. But I have a couple of concerns. First, who is going to teach such a course? Good and fair religious knowledge of a wide variety of religions is not something aquired by reading a couple of text books. It takes years of training and direct experience. And even then, we should be wary of speaking FOR another religious perspective other than our own. At least SRI is taught, if not by professional teachers, people who actually practice and know their religious tradition. (You can view the argument to the contrary put up by one of the most vocal supporters of GRI from a secularist perspective here by Catherine Byrne.) Secondly, GRI is not a replacement for SRI. As far as I know, ACCESS ministries do not oppose the proposition of GRI as such – only when it is intended as an alternative to SRI. SRI is catechesis of those who belong to a religious tradition; GRI is education about religions. Both have a place and both are quite different things.
I believe this debate to be essential because it is about the rightful place of religious communities within our society. The secularists are attempting to exclude religion from the public space by arguing that religious freedom means only the the free right to exercise your religion in private. As in the United States, there are far to many Christians prepared to go along with such “compromises”. But in the end, it is a path that will lead to us resigning our right to freely exercise our religious identity as full members of our society.