The upcoming complaint to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission is referenced today in The Age Education Resource Centre.

Colleen Ricci of The Age has summarised the major points surrounding the controversy of Religious Instruction, presented as Religious Education by ACCESS Ministries.

Areas covered include, © The Age:

What is the nature of the complaint?

Under current arrangements, if a school is approached by an accredited teacher of religious studies, it is obliged to allow 30 minutes a week of ‘‘special religious instruction’’ (SRI) to its pupils. Children automatically attend these classes unless parents formally ‘‘opt out’’.

The complainants say the Education Department segregates children on religious grounds and discriminates by making it incumbent upon families to ‘‘opt out’’ of a program, rather than ‘‘opt in’’, and by not providing a secular (non-religious) alternative for students.

They also challenge the prevailing interpretation of the legislation, which says special religious instruction ‘‘may be given’’. The  department interprets this to mean ‘‘must be given’’. This, it says, is to conform to the ‘‘original intent’’ of the act.

Who teaches religion in Victorian state schools?

[…..] 96 per cent of all religious education is provided by Access Ministries, a Christian agency with 4000 volunteers that reaches two-thirds of state primary schools. Access Ministries is the only religious instruction provider to receive state government funding, with the state government recently announcing this funding would increase by $200,000 from July 1.  Religious instruction teachers are forbidden to advocate or proselytise (try to convert pupils) for Christianity or any other religion. According to Access Ministries’ chief executive Evonne Paddison, volunteers are carefully trained to follow these requirements. […..]

What are some concerns?

Some parents, social commentators, academics and spiritual leaders worry that children are given a predominantly Christian perspective without reference to others. They also point to accounts of proselytising, and reports of children who have opted out of programs being inadequately supervised or given no ‘‘appropriate alternative’’. […..] Professor Gary Bouma, an Anglican priest and sociologist at Monash University, is highly critical of Access Ministries’ curriculum. He says all faiths should be offered equally. ‘‘So if there are three Baha’i people who want it in school X, then they should be able to get it,’’ he says. Other religions have  complained of a ‘‘Christian  bias’’ in Victorian religious education and funding.

What do others say?

Despite the controversy, Education Minister Martin Dixon says there are no plans to review the system. Supporters of the Access Ministries program say it has been unfairly criticised, and that for many pupils the program is the only introduction to Christianity and its values.

Some maintain that religious instruction has no place in a secular state school, while others argue that our multifaith community demands a broad religious literacy to encourage tolerance. […..]

Others suggest that  ethics class, similar to those offered in New South Wales, should be offered as an alternative for pupils who opt out of religious instruction.

Recent Headlines. [……]

What The Age says.

‘‘Parents may withdraw their children from the classes, but this can be divisive and mark those children as ‘different’. The solution is not to abandon education about religion; events of the past decade illustrate the dangers of religious ignorance and intolerance. However, the government should not rely on faith-driven volunteers instead of trained educators who teach to the same professional standards as in any other subject. The goal must not be to convert children but to ensure they have the general religious literacy they need to make sense of the past, present and future.’’

What people say.

‘‘Every day of the school year, Access Ministries CRE teachers and chaplains are sharing God’s love with over 200,000 young Victorians. They are helping students explore their lives with meaning and purpose … Our vision is to reach every student in Victoria with the Gospel.’’ [ACCESS Ministries]

‘‘[Would] the providers of Christian education feel equally comfortable if the religious education spot were handed over instead to Jewish teachers, or Buddhist teachers or, shock horror, Muslim teachers? If they’re not comfortable in that, then it’s clear that there’s a bias in the teaching.’’
Social commentator Waleed Aly, The Age, April 10

‘‘Recent letters have offered evidence of strangely unorthodox opinions being presented to children, which are decidedly unacceptable to liberally minded parents who belong to mainstream Christian denominations or none at all. Parents need to be able to judge whether or not to permit their children to receive lessons after they are notified as to the qualifications and theological stance of the instructor who is timetabled for their child. To be able to opt into an RE program once these details have been advertised would seem to be a way forward.’’
The Reverend Dr Brian Porter, Camberwell, The Age, April 25

Your View.

Should religious instruction be provided to Victorian state primary schools? Why or why not? If so, how should it be taught?  What are the alternatives?

An opportunity to comment is available, by clicking here, and scrolling to the bottom.  Comments are moderated and take time to appear, be patient and tell your friends!

UPDATE:  the turn out from the CAMPAIGN was fantastic … over 50 really thoughtful and respectful comments so far!