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.
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.