Religious Freedom and Special Religious Education in Victoria

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Also, the edcuation department in Victoria has recently accepted that the policy of “opt out” (rather than “opt in”) is outdated in a time when many of the students do not have a religious community.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.

This is how Barney Zwartz presented the VCAT case in a recent Age report:

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.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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9 Responses to Religious Freedom and Special Religious Education in Victoria

  1. PM says:

    I nearly spewed at this:

    ‘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.’

    It obviously doesn’t apply to the private convictions of totalitarian secularists, radical feminists, gays, 1970s kindergarten Marxists and other favourites of the teachers’unions – or to the dubious anthropology of free-market economics from the other side of the political spectrum.

    What of the use of my taxes to pay van Hooft to propagate his religiophobic bile – based on lumpen-adolescent philosophy and history?

  2. Nicholas says:

    The existence of Santa is constantly affirmed by every childhood authority imaginable–parents, teachers, books, TV–yet every child manages to eventually suspend such a belief. If religion is as plainly ridiculous as Santa, there needs to be a better explanation for why Santa falls by the wayside but Jesus doesn’t than simply school authority.

  3. matthias says:

    You have these parents who want to stop SRI in the name of edeucation for their children but is this really a cover for their own religious intolerance?
    Secondly Stan van Hooft has always been a contrary person I think as a philosopher and if i am not worng a member of the Existentialist society of victoria.

  4. Peregrinus says:

    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 . . .

    Can I pick you up on this, if it’s not too late?

    I confess to being a bit puzzled by the whole HHS scheme, partly because it operates in what is, for Australians, a very unfamiliar context. But, as I understand it, the issues are these.

    1. In the US, healthcare is provided to a large extent by employers, who either directly pay the health costs of workers and retirees, and their dependants, or who take out (and pay for) an insurance policy.

    2. Recent attempts to ensure universal healthcare for Americans do not replace this system, but rather build on it. Part of this involves a legal requirement for employers to pay for the healthcare of workers, retirees and their dependants by (in most cases) taking out insurance.

    3. Obviously if the requirement is not to be meaningless there have to be minimum standards of healthcare for which the insurance will pay (to prevent employer taking out “bandaid-only” insurance).

    4. The standards require, among other things, that the healthcare provided should include contraception, including at least some forms of contraception which are regarded as abortifacient.

    5. The Catholic church, naturally, has an objection to providing or paying for contraception and abortifacients, and sought a derogation allowing it to offer its institutions, in their capacity as employer, to offer healthcare plans not including these features.

    6. There has been some back-and-forth, and some give from the government but, basically, what the government will require still seems to the US bishops to require at least some Catholic institutions to pay for things which they regard as fundamentally morally objectionable.

    OK. Now translate this to the Australian context.

    Employers are out of the loop in Australia. They don’t, except at the margins, pay for healthcare, and the national healthcare system doesn’t rely on them doing so, or require them to do so.

    Instead, the state provides a certain level of healthcare to all, including contraception and abortion, and it funds this through taxation.

    Taxes are levied on Catholics and non-Catholics alike. They are levied on individuals and on (most) enterprises. Catholic dioceses don’t pay taxes, but e.g. a Catholic publishing house would.

    In terms of religious freedom, do the arguments now being invoked on behalf of Catholic institutions in the US apply here too? If it’s wrong to require a Catholic publishing house in the US to pay for contraception for its own workers, is it wrong to ask a Catholic publishing house in Australia to to pay for contraception for Australians at large? In other words, have we put up uncomplainingly for many years with precisely the infringement of religious freedom that is causing such a fuss in the US now?

    I can’t honestly see that it makes much difference whether the compulsory payment for contraception and abortifacients is characterized as an insurance premium, as in the US, or as a tax, as here. I don’t see that that characterization can really go to the moral quality of what’s going on. In each case we’re compelling a bunch of people to pay for something to which – collectively, corporately – they have a conscientious objection.

    And what about Catholic individuals? For historical reasons, US health insurance contributions are regarded as being paid by employers. In fact the cost ultimately comes back to individuals, since the cost of paying health insurance is factored into the wage that the employer offers the individual, and must be covered by his work product. So, again, in the Australian context, is it an infringement of on the religious liberty of the individual to tax him to pay for things to which he has a religiously-based conscientious objection.

    In short, I’m challenging your suggestion that “we’ve not yet had to face anything of this nature in Australia”. It seems to me that we have for many years faced something which, morally, is very much of this nature in all but trivial details, and we have haven’t regarded it as a gross infringement of religious liberty.

    Which leads me to the suspicion that either (a) we’ve been very wrong in the view we have taken of this for many years, or (b) an awful lot of Americans are very wrong in the view they are taking now.

    • Schütz says:

      Sorry for the late reply, Perry. In brief, I don’t think that you can make a case for saying that paying taxes in Australia is the equivalent to the HHS in the US. We pay taxes which the Government uses for all sorts of things, many of which many of us may find immoral. For instance, our taxes supported Australia’s military involvement in Iraq. Unfortunately, we don’t really get a direct say in how our taxes are spent – but then we are not directly responsible for the use of our taxes once these funds are in the hands of our Government. The HHS requires that Catholics (not just the institution but also independant Catholic employers) pay directly for “services” which violate their consciences. I think this is a fundamental difference. Were the American government to decide to provide a universal health care system such as our “medicare”, the Catholic Church could object (much as we do here in Australia) but could not be held directly responsible for the provisions of these services.

      • Peregrinus says:

        “Sorry for the late reply, Perry.”

        No worries. Given that I let the best part of a week go by before contributing my own thoughts, and your initial post had slipped well down the page, I consider myself lucky that my comment was even noticed!

        Having said that, I’m not persuaded that the tax/insurance premium distinction can bear the weight you put on it. Just like taxes, the insurance premium will go to fund a variety of services, the great bulk of which are completely unobjectionable, but you can’t completely prevent a small part of it from going to [i]some[/i] which are objectionable.

        In fact, you could say that the tax payment is [i]worse[/i] from this point of view. If I pay $1,000 in tax to the Australian government, I [i]know[/i] that some of it will be spent on providing abortions in Australian hospitals, and in fact if I do my homework I can predict how much this will be. But, if a Catholic agency pays $1,000 in insurance premiums for healthcare services for its employees, none of it will be spent on providing contraceptives or abortifacients for the employees unless some employees seek contraceptives or abortifacients.

        Now, you might say that it’s a moral certainty that some of them will. (“Moral certainty” is an unhappy choice of phrase in this context, but you know what I mean.) But the truth is that this is not [i]wholly[/i] outside the church’s control. If the church could successfully evangelise the employees of its own agencies – a group who, as a class, are presumably not wholly hostile to Catholic ideals – then they wouldn’t seek contraception or abortion or, at least, would do so less frequently.

        You’re right to say that we don’t ultimately control how our taxes are spent. But we do know that some of them are spent in ways that we find morally unconscionable. And it seems to me that the parallel with insurance premiums is pretty exact; some of them will also be spent in ways that we find morally unconscionable, but we actually have more influence over that than we do over tax expenditures.

        The bottom line is that the same healthcare services (in this regard) are provided in both Australia and the US, and the moral quality of those healthcare services does not depend on how they are funded. And while mandatory exactions to fund those services are characterised as “taxes” in Australia and as “insurance premiums” in the US, in both cases the mandatory payments are pooled, and the pooled funds are used to pay for services, some of which are morally objectionable. I can’t see that the morality of making these mandatory exactions depends on whether they are characterised as taxes or as insurance premiums.

        Just to complicate matters further, in many other countries – Germany, the UK – public health services are funded, or partly funded, by mandatory exactions which are characterised as insurance premiums – e.g. national insurance contributions in the UK, social insurance payments in Germany. The insurer which administers these payments is a government agency rather than a private concern but, again, I don’t see that this is material to the moral issues. If a mandatory health insurance requirement which includes funding for contraceptives and abortifacients (and indeed surgical abortions, in Germany and the UK) is an assault on religious freedom, how come the English, Scottish and German bishops haven’t noticed that?

        There’s an unpleasant dimension to this which I can’t quite put my finger on, but something is wrong when the law permits contraceptives and abortifacients, and many Catholics use contraceptives and abortifacients, and while this is objectionable it doesn’t turn into a die-on-the-barricades religious liberties issue until church dollars become involved. The real wealth of the church is not bricks and mortar, and it’s not chalices and statuary, and it’s not dollars in bank accounts and trust funds. It’s Catholics. We should be far more concerned about the fact that Catholics are employing contraceptives and abortifacients than we are about how they are paid for, surely? Is this focus on, frankly, money edifying?

        • Schütz says:

          Another flaw in your argument is that taxes represent a particular amount of money given to the Government. By law, we must give this money to the Government. We don’t spend it. They do. They decide how it is spent, we don’t.

          Providing someone with health insurance is a different matter. It is not giving them money, which they can then spend on whatever health services they wish. It is providing them with a particular benefit, which they can use to access particular services. In the case of the HHS, it includes directly providing employees with access to “benefits” that the Catholic faith understands to be intrinsically evil.

          Your argument would be stronger if you equated paying taxes with paying wages. It is unlawful for an employer to refuse to pay the legal wages to their employee (just as it is unlawful for anyone who earns a set amount of income to refuse to pay income tax). But employers are not held responsible for the way in which employees choose to spend their wages. If a person who worked for a Catholic employer used their wages to procure an instrically evil service (eg. to purchase contraceptions, to pay for a prostitute, to purchase drugs, to pay for a murder to be done), the Catholic employer could not be held responsible in any sense.

          Thus, if the Government of the United States simply provided a health insurance scheme that all American citizens could buy into, and if they required all employers to increase their wages to their employees by a sufficient amount so that their employees had the option of purchasing this health cover, the Catholic employers could not regard themselves as responsible for the benefits of the health cover purchased. The same would be the case if the Government of the US provided a free health care package for all Americans paid for with American taxes. The problem is that the scheme requires the employers to provide the Health Insurance benefits directly.

          • Peregrinus says:

            Your argument would be stronger if you equated paying taxes with paying wages. It is unlawful for an employer to refuse to pay the legal wages to their employee (just as it is unlawful for anyone who earns a set amount of income to refuse to pay income tax). But employers are not held responsible for the way in which employees choose to spend their wages. If a person who worked for a Catholic employer used their wages to procure an instrically evil service (eg. to purchase contraceptions, to pay for a prostitute, to purchase drugs, to pay for a murder to be done), the Catholic employer could not be held responsible in any sense.

            But isn’t the provision of health insurance just a non-cash element of the pay the worker receives for the work he does? In return for your forty hours per week you get so much in cash, plus (say) the use of a company car for private purposes, plus (say) a laptop, plus a health insurance policy, plus (say) an accrual of benefit entitlement under a superannuation plan. That’s pretty much always been the way in the US, at least for middle-class employment; health insurance was routinely part of the remuneration package.

            Up to know, the health insurance policies provided by Catholic employers have (presumably) not included cover for contraception. (At any rate, they haven’t [i]had[/i] to include that cover.) And, without insurance cover for contraception, employees who used contraceptives have had to use a part of their cash wages to get them. And, as you say, their employers are not responsible for that choice.

            Right. Now the US government has made the provision of health insurance as part of the remuneration package compulsory. And, furthermore, they have prescribed that the health insurance policies must include cover for (among many other things) contraception.

            (Assuming a Catholic agency complies wit this obligation) the position of an employee of the agency who uses contraception has now changed; he has a choice that he didn’t have before. He can continue to pay for the contraception out of his monetary remuneration, as he has been doing up to know, or he can claim for it on his health insurance policy.

            Now, foreseeably he will claim on his health insurance policy, since from his point of view this is financially the better deal. But it doesn’t seem to me that the moral position of the bishops has changed much. Up to know they gave him cash, which he could apply to get contraceptives. Now they have to give him cash, plus an insurance policy, and he can apply either of them (or, if he wishes, both) to get contraceptives.

            The bottom line, it seems to me, is that US law requires employers to remunerate their employees with something that they can exchange for contraceptives. It doesn’t seem to me to matter, morally speaking, whether that something is cash, or insurance cover.

            Thus, if the Government of the United States simply provided a health insurance scheme that all American citizens could buy into, and if they required all employers to increase their wages to their employees by a sufficient amount so that their employees had the option of purchasing this health cover, the Catholic employers could not regard themselves as responsible for the benefits of the health cover purchased. The same would be the case if the Government of the US provided a free health care package for all Americans paid for with American taxes. The problem is that the scheme requires the employers to provide the Health Insurance benefits directly.

            I think not. The employer isn’t paying for the contraceptives; the insurer is. This isn’t just a finicky point; it’s true that the payment comes out of a fund into which the employer’s premium payment has gone. But insurers don’t “ring-fence” the premium payments from employer A to provide benefits for the workers of employer A. Employer A’s health insurance premiums go into a vast pool along with the premiums of many other employers, and that pool pays insured medical expenses for the workers of all of them. So even if Employer A buys a policy for his workers which doesn’t include cover for a particular expense, Employer A’s premiums go into a pool which does pay that very expense for the workers of other employers who have purchased the policy. Catholic employers’ insurance premiums have been helping to pay for contraception for years in the US; just not contraception for their own employees.

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