Over the last few days in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), three parents whose children have suffered from the divisive way Special Religious Instruction (SRI) is administered in Victoria have bravely weathered relentless cross examination of their evidence from the Education Department’s barrister.
The day before the case started, ACCESS Ministries, the Christian organisation that provides 96% of Victorian SRI, issued a media release claiming SRI ‘enjoys broad community support’. But does it?
ACCESS Ministries claim that SRI ‘enjoys broad community support, 70% of whom describe themselves as being of religion’. The second part of this statement bears no logical connection to the first part of the statement. It is true that about 70% of Australians identify as religious but this does not mean they support SRI – they haven’t been asked ! Most of them wouldn’t know what the SRI syllabus now contains and I venture to suggest that most would be disturbed, if not appalled, at the insidious nature of the syllabus introduced some years ago by ACCESS Ministries.
ACCESS Ministries go on to say in their release that ‘the legislation itself and the record of Hansard show clear community support for the presence of voluntary SRI programs in Victorian government schools.’ Let’s just pick this apart a bit. The 2006 Education Act does allow non-teachers to come into government schools to instruct in SRI during school hours and this has been the case since the 1950s (previously SRI was only allowed outside regular school hours). But in the 1950s, nearly 90% of Australians counted themselves as Christian; now less than 68% identify as Christian, and religions other than Christianity are growing fast: Buddhism by 79%, Hinduism by 42%, Islam by 40%, Judaism by 5% and ‘other religions’ by 35%. Moreover, 27% of Australians now count themselves as non-religious.
So the current legislation that allows non-teachers to instruct in SRI during school hours is actually a relic of the 1950s. Whether or not it enjoys broad community support has not been established – no survey has been done. As to whether Hansard (ie, the views of the current crop of politicians) reflects community values, well, it is perhaps up to each voter to decide whether their local State parliamentary representative does a good job of representing their views.
The main argument that appears to be emerging in the Education Department’s case is that the present SRI arrangements provide parents with choice: they can choose whether their children will participate or will not participate in SRI during regular school hours.
But as the parents have indicated in their evidence, this is actually a ‘Sophie’s choice’: you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If parents opt their children into SRI, they risk exposing their child to instruction they do not agree with – for example, that ‘God made the world’ and ‘Jesus is my friend’. On the other hand, if they opt their children out, they risk causing their child to feel ‘different’, unhappily segregated from their friends, stuck in the corridor filling in time, missing out on fun and games.
When choice is really a Sophie’s choice, it means the system is wrong. Religious philosopher Simone Weil recognised as much. In her essay The Needs of the Soul, she argued that people who find themselves in circumstances that “necessitate … obligations incompatible with one another, without being able to offer resistance … [are] made to suffer …”. Parents shouldn’t have to choose between two harmful options.
ACCESS Ministries claim they respect and support other faith traditions that offer SRI. Well, perhaps. After all, they may reason, some religion may be better than no religion. But ACCESS Ministries has connections with the Lausanne movement, a Billy Graham initiative of the 1970s. One of the Lausanne movement’s more insidious papers is called ‘The Evangelization of Children’. This is a highly sophisticated strategic plan for getting to children as early as possible and turning them into evangelists for a particular type of Christian doctrine. It lists ‘specific challenges’ to achieving this end in a multi-faith society like Australia. Among those specific challenges are:
· Tolerance and choice: ‘where tolerance is a virtue … and choice is assumed to be good… and where Christianity is perceived to be just one of a whole range of spiritual and religious beliefs … children may be confused to be told of God’s absolutes’
· Differing Christian denominational responses: children may be ‘confused’ if different Christian denominations to not agree on aspects of the gospel
· Issues of faith, family and cultural assimilation: where Christianity is not the faith of the family or ethnic group involved, the family may find it acceptable for their child to participate in Christian traditions ‘until the child decides that following Jesus is a personal matter requiring a strong level of commitment. This can become even more critical if the child begins to evangelise her own family.’
In other words, democratic values like choice and tolerance are seen as barriers not as good things; different religious beliefs just ‘confuse’; and the reasonable objections of non-Christian families whose children turn into Christian evangelists are critical challenges to be overcome.
ACCESS Ministries currently provides the vast majority of all SRI in Victorian schools. From a position of such strength, they can afford to be magnanimous and say they support the efforts of other religions to offer SRI, knowing that their domination will not be challenged any time soon.
But even if other faiths grew their provision of SRI, is this a good thing? As the parents at VCAT (both in the witness box and in the public gallery) graphically illustrate, the current SRI policy is socially divisive, educationally flawed and perhaps psychologically damaging.
ACCESS Ministries say that in their SRI program, ‘students learn about the teachings and values of the Christian faith, such as loving your neighbour, being a ‘Good Samaritan’ and caring for others, caring for our world and personal responsibility’.
How could anyone object to these sorts of values?
Again, let’s pick this apart. Firstly, the ACCESS Ministries SRI syllabus may teach these values but that’s not all it does. For example, the student workbook for children in Years 1 and 2 includes sayings like ‘God made us with feelings’, ‘God knows how we feel’ and ‘Jesus is alive’. These are written as statements of fact, not belief. This is not education, it’s indoctrination.
Secondly, government schools already teach values anyway. Through the Victorian Essential Learning Standards, schools teach values like care and compassion, doing your best, a fair go, freedom, honesty and trustworthiness, integrity, respect, responsibility and understanding, tolerance and inclusion. And all this without indoctrinating children into believing in imaginary friends.
So what should the Victorian Education Department do?
Last year, the Department clearly acknowledged their existing policy was wrong by changing the SRI guidelines to make sure parents had to make a positive decision to opt in rather than opt out of SRI. This is a good start but it’s doesn’t go nearly far enough.
As pointed out above, giving parents a ‘Sophie’s choice’ to opt in or opt out is unacceptable: the system has to change. If the government is committed to giving parents a genuine choice, one that does not force them to choose between the lesser of two evils, then they should:
1. Ensure SRI is offered in the same way as other extra-curricular offerings – after school hours – so that it doesn’t segregate children by their religion or lack thereof during school hours.
2. Provide parents with clear and unambiguous information about what SRI actually is – that is, indoctrination into the tenets of one particular religious doctrine.
But the Government should not be having anything to do with SRI in any case. What we are seeing here is the emergence of the very same phenomenon that in 1872 led to the original Education Act declaring that government education should be free, compulsory and secular – the phenomenon of the social divisiveness and rancour that attends religious indoctrination.
By all means, let properly qualified teachers teach about religions, their beliefs and practices, rituals and cultural traditions. But governments should have no business facilitating the access of evangelists to vulnerable children.