Crackdown on religion in VIC state schools

NEWS | Sophie Timothy & Kaley Payne

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Updated: The Department of Education provided Eternity with some brief, clarifying statements that suggest student-run lunchtime groups will still be allowed, with the schools permission. Students will also be permitted to bring their religious texts to school. Read the full statement, here.

Lunchtime prayer meetings, Bible studies, Christmas plays and Easter presentations may become a thing of the past in Victorian State Schools following the publication of a new set of rules.

8100955094_ccdf788eb1_zThe Victorian Minister for Education, Martin Dixon has been pushed to clarify the limits of Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in schools after aggressive campaigning by parent groups and a series of bad press tainting the work of SRI provider ACCESS Ministries in recent years.

The new ministerial directive lays out the requirements for providers of religious education in schools including necessary training, what can and can’t be taught, what permissions must be sought from parents and the rights and responsibilities of principals, most of which was announced in May.

But what’s new is a ban on religious activities outside of the half an hour a week of special religious education in class. The directive, and accompanying policy guidelines emphasise the secular education in Victorian state schools, with the only exception as Special Religious Instruction (SRI).

The policy is broad in its terms, suggesting “prayer groups, youth groups, clubs, information sessions, or workshops” are not part of SRI and are therefore “not permitted”. Using prayer groups as an example, the policy guidelines suggest these groups must not be “led, conducted by or at the instruction of staff or parents/visitors/volunteers”. But it remains silent on whether student-led groups are still permissible.

Also banned under the new directive is the display of any material promoting a religious practice, denomination or sect: “When advertising events or activities in school newsletters or on school premises, principals should be mindful of the requirement in the Act that government schools must not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect,” the guidelines read. An imaginable outworking of this directive is that a school would be prohibited from promoting a church fete in its newsletter, but there is no further clarification in the guidelines about the practical outworking of such a directive.

Additionally, Bibles are not allowed to be distributed at state schools, not even by teachers leading Christian religious education classes, nor are religious programs, plays, events or activities to be run during school hours.

The new inclusions have already caused confusion amongst Christian service providers, with some reading the policy narrowly and heralding the changes as anti-religious and a possible breach of human rights.

The Australian Christian Lobby have suggested the new changes may be contrary to the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities and in breach of the Equal Opportunity 8. In a summary on the ‘Make A Stand’ website, the organisation says implications are far-reaching.

“A consequence of [the rule against distribution of religious material] is that a student would be prevented from showing or giving to another student a Bible, Koran or verses from these texts or religiously themed book or music DVD’s-even in the schoolyard. A student would not be able to have on his or her desk a diary with a Bible verse or religious image on it.”

ACL also suggests the directive is a prohibition against lunchtime prayer groups, youth groups, clubs or information sessions – reading the directive as a ban against activities that may be 100 per cent student-led and run.

Tim Clare who heads up Mustard, a Christian organisation that helps facilitate lunchtime Christian groups in Victorian schools says there is a need for clarification about the breadth of the new rules.

Without that clarification, Tim says there can only be speculation about how the policy will play out in Victoria’s schools. But he says it would be difficult for principals to stop Christian students holding their own prayer meetings or Bible studies, and doubts it would be the intention of the government to stop them doing so.

“I think it’s a limit on external organisations – we’re hopeful that it’s not intended to limit the freedom of students to practice their faith,” he told Eternity. 

Tim says that his organisation may be drastically affected by the new policy – and in consultation with several schools have stopped sending their volunteers into schools to help students run their lunchtime groups. But he thinks there’s “great value for students of all faiths to be allowed to gather together to encourage each other in their faith, something which is so intrinsic to their identity.”

“It’s my job now, and those in other Christian organisations like ours, to think about what the future looks like. There will always be Christian students in state schools, and we need to figure out how best to support them.”

Eternity has requested clarification on these questions from the Victorian Department of Education, but has yet to receive a response.

Students are still permitted to dress “according to the requirements of their faith”, in line with “an inclusive approach to religious diversity”. 

Mustard, a group which runs lunchtime gatherings in Victorian schools has written about the announcement here, while Baptist pastor Murray Campbell has also weighed in on his blog.

Feature image: via Flickr

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