Religious instruction has no place in our public schools
by David Zyngier
The policy of Special Religious Instruction (SRI) or Special Religious Education (SRE) currently enacted through differing state education statutes across Australia, is an outdated and flawed model of segregated, unaccountable and unprofessional religious instruction, which caters to the interests of religious organisations and not the needs of students, educators or families.
Under the system as it stands, state government schools must allow non-teacher volunteers from religious organisations into classrooms to instruct students on a weekly basis. Meanwhile, valuable class time is disrupted and students who do not participate are often stopped from completing any meaningful learning.
Schools have no option over whether religious instruction is delivered. Principals and school councils must put the wishes of their communities aside and allow religious volunteers into classrooms each week, irrespective of how many students’ parents elect for them to participate.
Students are also segregated according to religious belief contributing to stereotyping and suspicion of minorities and risking promoting religious exclusion. This is a system that hardly fosters religious and cultural diversity. Not to mention that it does not honour the central tenet of Australia’s democracy – the separation of church and state.
In New South Wales there is an alternative. Primary Ethics is a course taught by volunteers and available to students who “opt out” of SRI. But the course is only available in a fraction of state schools and there have clearly been problems with meeting demand.
While it might seem better than no alternative at all, in fact the Primary Ethics course legitimises the place of religious groups who are intent on proselytising our youngest children.
The exclusive nature of these programmes has also raised concerns that first, students who elect to sit out are being discriminated against and second, that these programs do not adequately meet the needs of a multicultural society, where students should be encouraged to learn about diverse religious and ethical traditions.
In addition, the exclusive nature of many of these programmes risks exacerbating social problems such as prejudice, racism and religious vilification.
Scholars and community members are becoming increasingly uncomfortable that religious groups are able to proselytise our children in classes in what should be a secular education system.
Such activities are prohibited in American schools and the UK shifted away from exclusive Christian education to world religions education in the mid-1970s. Legal opinion here in Australia suggests that the laws as they stand are illegitimate and open to challenge.
The 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians made a clear commitment “to nurture an appreciation of and respect for religious diversity”. It is time public education clearly stepped up to that commitment and ended this practice in our state schools.
It’s also time to understand that families are in the best position to provide specific religious education. They can guide their children either in the home or through special after school activities or in their own church, synagogue, mosque or temple.
We need to trust families to do the task of looking after the faith education of their own children. If we don’t leave it to families and ask public education to become responsible, we forfeit a lot, including the secular nature of public education.
Australian public school students are participating in an outdated model of religious education, which presents children with a singular, and in many cases, an exclusive faith perspective, presented in pedagogically unsound ways.
Access Ministries, which provides 90 per cent of all religious instruction in our public schools is unambiguous about its “mission” for volunteer “teachers” who are “fishing for souls”.
When they say, “Every day of the school year, our teachers are sharing God’s love with over 130,000 young Victorians … helping students explore their lives with meaning and purpose” they do not mean that they want to “educate” children. They mean that they want children to believe in the religious doctrines that they do.
Access Ministries defines its role as “converting” children in a “cross cultural mission”, since “without Jesus, our students are lost.”
This is wrong and completely at odds with Australian state and federal governments’ commitment to promoting a socially inclusive society. This must be changed before too much damage is done to students and to the public education system as a whole.
Dr David Zyngier works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University.