In mid July, many Lake Macquarie citizens were astonished to read in the major Sydney and Newcastle newspapers that a prominent government high school had accepted an offer from an association of local fundamentalist churches - the Warners Bay Christian Education Association - to donate $40,000 worth of money and materials to convert an existing weather shed into a classroom for scripture lessons. While the school insists that the proposal had been well publicised locally and been approved by the P&C Association, it was the first that the wider community had heard of it.
Allowing any religious organisation to establish a beachhead in a public school contravenes all the assumptions that have held sway for a hundred years in New South Wales, a state which prides itself on providing free, compulsory and secular education to all school-aged children. Yet, the chairman of the Association, a local Baptist Church minister, insists that the donation had been approved by the assets management unit at the Department of Education and Training, a claim that has been supported in a letter to me from a senior departmental Director.
Why would the Department allow such a proposal to proceed? What the school gets, apparently, is the use of an extra classroom except during the ten periods per week - that’s 25 per cent - when it is reserved for the churches to administer Special Religious Education to the children of their faith. What it has lost is its ability to boast that public schooling in NSW is not only secular, but can in every respect be seen to be secular. It has also, presumably, lost a weather shed!
The Department seems either unaware or unconcerned that it has allowed a precedent that it could come to regret dearly. In part, the Director who responded to my request for information said, “In 2009, the local Christian community offered to donate building materials and labour to enhance an existing structure and so provide an additional learning space for the school. This learning space meets all Departmental building codes. The use of the facility is determined solely by the school. Special Religious education will be conducted in this space for a total of 10 periods per week, with all other access to the space governed by school needs.”
So that’s all right then?
Many local citizens believe that this response, reassuring at one level, nevertheless fails to address the crucial underlying concern that the Department has behaved as if public schools and Christian religions are partners in educating our children. They are not. It’s true that because of some regrettable political deal 100 years ago, churches were guaranteed the right to deliver Special Religious Education (SRE) to the children of their congregants for one hour per week and that schools had, and amazingly still have, no choice but to allow this to happen. Indeed, not only must they allow it but they must also ensure that while it is happening, children whose parents decline to have them subjected to SRE must not be offered any worthwhile alternative educational experience - they must be supervised but not taught.
One recent - and ongoing - spine-chilling manifestation of the commitment of the churches to this century old concession is the near hysterical opposition of the two Sydney Archbishops to the proposal to conduct a trial of ethics classes as an alternative to Special Religious Education for children of parents wanting such an alternative.
It has always been understood that just as schools were not allowed to do anything to impede the churches’ access to their students, neither were they allowed to do anything to promote it. Government schools were neither religious nor irreligious places; they were a-religious. Now, in one single, incredibly ill-advised decision, the Department has allowed a religious organisation to buy a permanent presence for itself in a public school. It has been complicit in destroying the essential disconnect between secular education and religious indoctrination that had been sacrosanct for 100 years.
In dropping its guard, the Department has allowed in what might well prove to have been a Fundamentalist Trojan Horse. How will the Department respond when a Muslim community offers financial support to a struggling government school to construct a facility that can serve as an additional normal classroom except during Friday prayers; or other religions such as Scientology make a similar offer?
Now that the horse has bolted - not the Trojan, unfortunately - there are certain conditions, inadequate as they might be, that this school and the Department surely need to impose and to police closely. I suggest that these include at least the following:
- At no time should the building display any signs or icons or transmit any messages pertaining to religious belief that would be perceivable by any members of or visitors to the school. There must be nothing visible from outside the building that could hint that it had a religious purpose or association.
- No religious materials must be visible or audible within, or in any way associated with the building except during those times when consenting students are receiving SRE in accordance with the Education Act 1990, and only those students are present and able to see or hear them. If visiting SRE teachers bring religious materials with them, they must ensure that those materials are never able to be perceived by other than their own consenting students.
- The building must never be referred to so as to acknowledge that it was funded by a religious organisation and the school must be meticulous in ensuring that nothing ever allows the students to think of it as a religious building.
- The church-funded facility must never be used to mark observance of special days that could have spiritual connotations, such as Anzac Day. If the school should ever invite a representative of a church, qua church representative, to address the students, the building must never be used for that address.
Probably forever, the risk will remain that it will be thought of, or referred to, as the scripture room or the religious building. Every time its presence prompts a student to think “religious facility” or “the churches gave us this”, it will have served its purpose of influencing young minds in ways that its donor churches would hope for - in ways that might well be in direct conflict with provisions of Australian Science curriculums. For let it be remembered that at least some of the churches concerned are known to be still pro-Creationism, anti-evolution and aggressively homophobic, even though virtually all the mainstream Christian churches have now affirmed that the first two of these stances (at least) are not tenable.
While it is too late to undo all the damage, the Department should immediately reimburse the churches an amount equal to the value of their donation of money, materials and labour and let it be widely known that its decision to accept the donation in the first place was ill advised. And it most definitely should make it clear to all government schools that they must never, ever, enter into any kind of funding agreement with any religious organisation as doing so irreparably harms their ability to function as part of a secular schooling system.