Chaplaincy and religious education in state schools

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Oscar Winner
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PostPosted: Sun Mar 27, 2011 9:18 pm
Australia prides itself on being a pretty laid back, secular nation, but if the former Prime Minister John Howard's policies haven't already done so, the education department in the state of Victoria shows that theocratic tendencies have not been brought under control yet, let alone rooted out.
Backlash as God forced into schools
Michael Bachelard March 27, 2011

THE Victorian Education Department is forcing public primary schools to run Christian education classes taught by volunteers, angering parents and schools that do not want to host them.

An email exchange, obtained by The Sunday Age, reveals the department told one parent that his school ''must'' keep its Christian religious instructor whether it wanted to or not.

A number of Melbourne primary schools have questioned whether students should be taught about Christianity. But the department and Christian religious education provider Access Ministries says they have no choice.

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This comes as the Humanist Society of Victoria takes legal action against the department, claiming children who opt out of ''special religious instruction'' are being discriminated against.

Under Education Department guidelines children who opt out are not allowed to do other school work and are often forced to sit at the back of the class, or in quiet rooms or corridors while religious education is under way.

Hawthorn West Primary School parent Tim Heasley recently tried to challenge the hosting of Christian classes at the school, telling Education Department senior policy officer Christine Pinto the school should be able to reject religious instruction if it wanted to.

He pointed to the state legislation that says religious instruction ''may be given''.

But Ms Pinto told Mr Heasley that his school must continue to offer it.

''The word 'may' used in … the Education and Training Reform Act … is interpreted as 'must' to conform with the original intent of the Victorian legislation,'' she wrote late last year in an email to Mr Heasley.

''This interpretation (of 'may' = 'must') was confirmed … when the Act was introduced in Victoria in 2006,'' she wrote.

The department's lawyers later confirmed this advice in separate emails to Mr Heasley and in response to questions from The Sunday Age.

A department spokeswoman said schools ''must comply with their obligations under the Act and any departmental policy''.

Mr Heasley, a lawyer, said the department's interpretation was insupportable. At a recent school council meeting, he moved to end religious instruction at the school, but the move failed.

Principal Robert Webb told The Sunday Age that the school had appointed a working party to assess the community's views on religious instruction.

''My impression is there's a lot of schools watching what we're doing,'' Mr Webb said.

The Sunday Age understands another Melbourne school came under pressure earlier this year when it tried to move religious instruction to 8.30am on Tuesdays, outside school hours. The school is negotiating with Access Ministries and the department.

Access Ministries has 4000 volunteers who teach in two-thirds of Victorian primary schools. Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Baha'i, Greek Orthodox, Hare Krishna and Roman Catholic courses are also accredited, but Access provides 96 per cent of ''special religious instruction''.

Children must attend the half-hour classes unless their parents choose for them to opt out.

Monash University academic Anna Halafoff said non-Christian parents often expressed concern at the way religious education was structured in Victoria.

''The way it's being taught is not facilitating a general religious literacy,'' she said. ''Depending on which individual is teaching it … it might further aggravate prejudices or misunderstandings about certain groups.''

Access Ministries chairman Stephen Hale said when religious instruction was last reviewed in 2006, the community had overwhelmingly supported it.

He likened Christian education to environment lessons, saying it was ''not just about teaching things in a neutral way,'' but encouraging children to have an opinion and ''be committed to doing something''.

The Humanist Society has written to all state primary schools saying they do not have to offer religious instruction. The society has also set up a website, http://www.religionsinschool.com, to garner views on the issue.

(Bolding added)
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 28, 2011 12:21 am
This interests me, but I don't think I quite understand it.

Is it that the individual states, such as Victoria, can make it a requirement that students take religious education courses--and they can limit those courses to Christianity? Or are they supposed to have a comparative religion curriculum, but the only people available right now happen to be from the Christian faith??? And how does that square with the separation of church and state, which I believe is part of the Australian constitution--but I'm very sketchy on that, so please set me straight if I"m wrong.

Here public schools don't really deal with religion in the curriculum, unless it's historical in nature. We would learn about the Protestant Reformation in World History, or the Great Awakening in American History. But we wouldn't be instructed in any particular religion, because it's not allowed by law. I do remember one of my English teachers having us read parts of the Bible in high school though, but he got away with that because he said we were reading it "as a work of literature." I never quite understood how he slipped that one by the local school authorities, but no one seemed to have a problem with it.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 28, 2011 7:43 am
Wonderful, another thread about how horrible religion/christians/the Bible is. I really wish this forum would ban threads about religious topics, they never end well.
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Oscar Winner
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 28, 2011 10:56 am
PCH wrote:Is it that the individual states, such as Victoria, can make it a requirement that students take religious education courses--and they can limit those courses to Christianity? Or are they supposed to have a comparative religion curriculum, but the only people available right now happen to be from the Christian faith??? And how does that square with the separation of church and state, which I believe is part of the Australian constitution--but I'm very sketchy on that, so please set me straight if I"m wrong.

Every state in Australia determines its own education policy. The Australian Constitution was approved by referenda, but is in fact an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Religion is only mentioned in one of its 128 clauses. It goes like this: "The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth." The High Court has always interpreted this very narrowly. In its view, for example, it is not unconstitutional for federal or state governments to fund religious schools or to provide religious indoctrination lessons in government schools. On a federal level, the Prime Minister, John Howard, implemented a three-year, $90 million program in 2006 for public and private schools to employ chaplains to provide pastoral care, religious and personal advice and support to students and staff. The policy had bi-partisan support. Apart from the Greens and the Australian Democratic Party, who together occupy only a handful of seats, there was no parliamentary opposition. It seems to me that the state government of Victoria has a similar scheme going in parallel. So you see, the separation between church and state is not as thorough-going as in your country.

WhatsHisName, I don't see why we should have a ban on talk about religion when there are literally hundreds of threads dedicated to slagging celebrities. Last time I checked, there were at least five of them specifically about Paris Hilton alone, and I put it to you that she is nowhere near as significant in the scheme of things as religion. If you regard some criticism as invalid, feel free to say so, but I don't think religion should be treated like a holy cow, which is what you seem to be aiming for.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 28, 2011 12:49 pm
Interesting. That is a bit of a difference. Thanks, Fringedweller.
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PostPosted: Mon Mar 28, 2011 11:04 pm
Hmmmm, interesting. I'm not against the idea of teaching about religion, per se, but it should take in a much wider view. It is a lot easier to accept what you understand, so teaching muslim kids about christianity, and catholic kids about judaism, and mormons about islam is probably a good idea. I really can't understand what the education department hopes to achieve. :?
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PostPosted: Wed Mar 30, 2011 12:58 pm
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Oscar Winner
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PostPosted: Fri Apr 01, 2011 9:53 pm
PCH wrote:Interesting. That is a bit of a difference. Thanks, Fringedweller.

Looks like in practical terms the situation is not all that different in the south of your nation, PCH. Link
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Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful. - Lucius Annaeus Seneca (attrib.)

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 02, 2011 7:59 am
Fringedweller wrote: Looks like in practical terms the situation is not all that different in the south of your nation, PCH. Link


Thanks for the link Fringedweller--and just as an aside, I love the fact that you read Mother Jones. I think it's a terrific magazine.

As for the article, yeah, that stuff is always rearing its ugly head in certain states, usually in the South. That kind of thing just wouldn't fly here in New Jersey. I'd be shocked if it could get any traction here.

The idea seems to be to raise "creationism" to the level of a science, and cast it as a valid theory on the origin of life on Earth. "Creationism" is basically the Book of Genesis, as far as I can see. I have no problem with it as part of the Christian religion, if that's what someone's beliefs are. But it shouldn't be brought into the science classroom. In fact, I don't know any science teacher worth a damn who would agree that students should be learning creationism in their biology classes.

As far as I'm concerned, trying to force creationism into the school curriculum has already gone much farther than it should have in some of the states cited in the article. Someone needs to challenge one of these laws, and have the case decided at the Supreme Court level. Who knows, there might already be a case making its way toward the Court. I don't know. But if Creationism can be seen for what it is, religious belief, there's no way it can be upheld as a valid subject to teach in science. I'm not a lawyer, but I'd imagine that any state law supporting that would be unconstitutional. ???
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PostPosted: Sun Apr 03, 2011 5:48 am
Yeah, over here in Western Australia it's pretty much out of bounds too. As far as I know, religious classes don't exist in any state school in WA, and oddly even in many private schools (the Catholic schools are the only ones you're absolutely guaranteed to find them - incidentally I've done a university unit in how to run a RE unit in a Catholic school and it was very interesting/challenging!) I know of a few situations where WA chaplains (see FD's post earlier) have acted up, but most of them have proven to be pretty reasonable, the kids see them as a person to talk to who's outside the school structure and they don't use the opportunity to try and convert kids to their faith or denomination. Some aren't even religious themselves, more like less trained social workers (although I know of at least one with a Psych degree and a Diploma of Social Work).

Re PCH's comments on science teaching in schools (I am a teacher in training myself as most know :), in pretty much all Australian states there's agreement as to the science curriculum and even private religious schools are required to teach it (they can do it as mine did and teach it but put their own spin on it if they so wish - my school's view was that religion was the church's call and they wanted to see their kids succeed in the secular world - they made their disapproval of evolution known but figured we had to know it to pass our exams.) I've seen several denominational Christian schools uncritically teach evolution, though, so it may not be as big an issue as it used to be.

As for the question re "religion threads", this doesn't actually seem to be one - it's more a question of whether students who have opted out, as is their right, out of a non-core course which is not part of the curriculum should be basically forced to attend it anyway. I personally think compulsion is a bad thing in these matters. When put in terms of "what can this achieve?", I don't see anything positive. When compulsion's taken out of it the kids who want to attend get the benefit, whilst those who don't want to get a different benefit, such as more private study time in high school.
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