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Government opts out of R.E.

Josh and Olivia’s parents face a different RE future under the new legislation. Photo by Osker Lau

Almost 100 years after Queensland voters passed a referendum guaranteeing time for religious instruction in Queensland schools, the Queensland Government has announced that religious education in all State Schools will be offered on an “opt in” rather than “opt out” basis.

The 1910 Referendum to enshrine Religious Education as part of Queensland State School programs was one of only two referendums ever to pass in Queensland. The other brought Queensland into the Federation.

Now, according to the Education Queensland Director General Ken Smith, parents enrolling their child at a State School will be shown the current RE programs offered in the school and will be asked to “tick a box”.

Under the new system, if parents have not asked to have their child included, Queensland students will go without religious education at school.

The Education (General Provisions) Bill 2006 was intro-duced into Parliament on 21 April and will be debated during the coming months.

While the legislation had not passed the final reading at the time Journey went to print, it seems inevitable as the Beattie Government is determined to press ahead with the changes despite protests from Christian churches concerned at the potential loss of Christian RE for Queensland’s 470,000 state school children.

If enacted, the Director General has specified that principals will receive training towards implementing the details by September 2006.

Journey spoke with Leader of the Opposition Mr Lawrence Springborg who said that the Coalition staunchly opposes the plan to make religious education an “optional-extra” in a child’s public education.

“Religious education is a fundamental part of the Queensland educational system,” Mr Springborg said.

“Even parents who are not particularly religious welcome such education, as it teaches students sound values and good citizenship.

“It also ensures that students gain a proper understanding of the meaning of Christian events such as Easter and Christmas.”

Other options

Education Minister Mr Rob Welford said that parents who choose not to have their child receive religious education at school would have other options.

“Those options could be anything from art classes through to additional reading and study time, through to sport.

“It could also include other values education classes which the school might organise, either from its own staff or from an outside source,” Mr Welford said.

Mr Sprinborg believes that “if the onus is now shifted to parents to opt their children into religious education, a greater number of students will not receive the religious education that is currently offered in State Schools.”

Non-religious access

As well as making RE “optional” the new legislation will change the rules to allow some non-religious groups equal access to State School students as religious groups during the 40 hours a year currently set aside for religious education.

Uniting Church representative on the government’s Religious Education Advisory Committee (REAC) Rev David MacGregor said that currently groups are only admitted if they have adherents in that school, or are part of an RE cooperative arrangement.

“In this new system, groups can be admitted to a school after they have applied and been approved by Education Queensland, and there is at least one parent requesting that program in the school,” said Mr MacGregor.

“There is a concern that this will open the way for a kind of state-sponsored proselytism, where at the behest of only one parent, a program can be offered to all new enrolments in the school.”

RE Officer for the Anglican Religious Education Team Mr Jonathan Sargeant said that parents may find a group coming into a school and offering their program to the entire school.

“They might have no adherents there and yet suddenly they may end up with a large group of people who think that this is a particular group that might seem to represent a number of different faith groups or seems very general in their approach, and therefore they might scoop the pool, so to speak, with the students in that school,” Mr Sargeant said.

One group positioning itself to take advantage of this change is the Baha’i religion which is marketing itself to lapsed churchgoers or parents disconnected from the mainstream Christian churches by their claims to represent all religions.

The ABC Religion Report stated that Baha’is themselves say they have 6,000 children around Australia coming to their classes, 90% of whom are not adherents to the Baha’i religion.

Even before the legislation has been passed, parents at the Ithaca Creek State Primary School in Brisbane recently received an invitation to enrol their children in Baha’i classes.

“We study the spiritual laws common to all religions and learn about basic human virtues,” said the invitation which went home via a weekly school newsletter. “If you wish your child to attend Baha’i classes please fill out the form below.”

Indooroopilly Uniting Church member Mrs Janelle Bennett whose children attend the Ithaca Creek State School told Journey she had read the letter and threw it out.

“I have no problem with the Baha’i offering to run education classes for those who are interested in Baha’i as long as my children and I don’t feel under any pressure to attend,” said Mrs Bennett.

Mr Sargeant said, “It’s up to the parents in the end, but I’m concerned sometimes that parents may not necessarily have the chance to think through the issues involved as to what program they actually choose for their children.”

In line with anti-discrimination laws, religious education classes will no longer be taught solely by church representatives. Providing they are non-political, groups with a non-religious system of beliefs will also be allowed to teach religious education classes.

The Sydney Morning Herald (19/04/06) reported that one supporter of the changes, the Australian Humanist Society, has already designed a syllabus based on creative thinking and ethical responsibility.

Member for Maroochydore Ms Fiona Simpson, one of the legislations most vocal critics, points out that the Queensland Teacher’s Union long-time representative on REAC is also the President of the Humanist Society.

“It’s interesting that the explanatory notes to this new bill expressly mention the possibility of humanism being taught in schools under the guise of religious education and beliefs,” she said.

Criticised for having suggested that the new legislation opens the way for groups such as satanist and witches to have right of entry to State Schools Ms Simpson claimed that under the Education (General Provisions) Bill there would be no legal mechanism to stop that.

Members of the Pagan Awareness Network (PAN Inc), which represents about 500 Queensland followers, have publicly stated they want the same rights and freedoms as any other religion.

PAN Inc. president David Garland told the Courier Mail (21/04/06), “There is absolutely no reason why religions like Wicca can’t be taught in schools if there is sufficient interest from parents and students.”

Mr Springborg sees the legislation as part of the Beattie Government’s agenda of “radical social engineering”.

“It was the Beattie Labor Government that introduced laws making it illegal for church schools to require teachers to share the faith of the school at which they teach,” he told Journey.

“Labor’s plans to remove religion from state schools is just its latest attack on values in the education syllabus.”

Facing the inevitability of the new legislation Mr Sargeant said his current concern is the detail that churches still don’t know.

“There are things like how local volunteers will be accredited, there are things like how will Education Queensland make decisions about which groups are worth admitting and which aren’t,” he said.

“Previously the government has taken no part in choosing groups on the basis of the content of their programs and yet we have some sense this time that groups do have to submit their R.E. programs and therefore the government might make some decision on the basis of those.”

Time may have already run out for the churches but Mr Macgregor said that even with the bill before parliament, contacting local members with your reactions may be helpful.

“Considering that the parliamentary debate may take place at any time now, such representations need to be made swiftly.”

Photo : Josh and Olivia’s parents face a different RE future under the new legislation. Photo by Osker Lau