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Religion, heritage and the culture wars

By Tim Heasley
Posted Monday, 9 May 2011


Over the past nine years as a parent and now as school council president I’ve observed the problems schools and families face with our system of Special Religious Instruction. Rob Ward, Australian Christian Lobby’s (ACL) Victorian Executive Director, makes the accusation that three politically correct families are unhappy therefore attempting to deny others what he claims is their heritage.

I refuse to submit to the culture war bullying that defines ACL’s politics. My first hand knowledge of the inequity of the current Special Religious Instruction (SRI) system, has motivated me to Chair the Fairness in Religions in School (FIRIS) campaign. Among our stated aims are the reform of our outdated system and the adoption of an objective, fair and balanced comparative syllabus for education about religions and beliefs.

Rob Ward is exactly right to assert that culture derives from who or what a society values most, and in our culture this means rule of law and human rights. Foundational to these are the idea of separation of church and state. What the ACL and ACCESS Ministry seek is the right to impose on everyone their religious beliefs. Nothing could be less Australian or more divisive in our schools.

Victoria once led the Western world in providing government schooling free from the divisive interference of the church. In 1872, our democratic ideals led to an education system that was compulsory, free of charge, and dedicated to teaching children in a way that set religious identity aside. This last idea was known as “secular instruction”. It contrasted with “religious instruction” which then, as now, was based on catechisms, creeds, doctrines and dogmas. These were rightfully, and respectfully, reserved as the domain for churches, temples and mosques to negotiate, free of state control.

During the Cold War and after a sustained period of clerical activism, a statutory exception was made to the “secular principle” granting a right for the church to use part of the school day to conduct Special Religious Instruction. It is the Church, and the ACL who are served by this exception, not our children.

Rob Ward’s ploy is to cloak his evangelical agenda in his concern for “heritage”. Never mind you won’t hear his anxiety about the classical roots of Western civilisation. Neither Homer, Pythagoras, nor Plato figure into the culture war being tweeted by Jim Wallace.

I too worry about a society that produces citizens who are so illiterate that they cannot write a persuasive essay about the parable of “The Good Samaritan”. I worry more about a society that believes the best way to achieve this is through the ministry of volunteers, selected for their religious convictions rather than their educational qualifications.  As Ward’s essay shows, Christians who worry about this are grist for his nihilistic rage.

Our country, in large measure because of its Christian influence but by no means the only influence, has adopted a robust system of rights and laws that reflect our social values. The battle to claim this system explicitly for Jesus is one most people will recognise as politics that play well in Kansas. The ACL’s grand scheme of making belief in Jesus an organising principle of society is simply ridiculous. No one faith is capable or deserving of such a role.

The ACL is free to preach that Jesus’ teachings are the foundation of Western culture so long as they don’t subvert our constitution by insisting that our public institutions take on a religious character or that religious groups get special access to our children in a system built for all children regardless of their religion. The laws of Australia, and by many accounts the teachings of Jesus, hold that religion must be freely chosen. The corollary of course is that Australians are free to have no religious beliefs. Currently schools are forced to offer curriculum organised by church volunteers who are increasingly aligned with the ACL.

If families don’t want this they can “opt out”. This is no choice, opting out is for many children their first taste of religious segregation in a country which long ago decided to not treat its citizens differently because of religion. This state of affairs is advocated by the ACL, and any objection mocked as “political correctness”.

ACCESS Ministry describes its agenda as “enacting the mission of the Gospel”. This, amazingly, aligns with the priorities of the ACL, not the Department of Education, who the ACL is happy to vilify.

FIRIS does not advocate driving Jesus from anyone’s mind. We welcome the introduction of proper religious education about the world’s religions being delivered by trained teaching staff. This would dignify our amazing fusion of culture and traditions, make us all more respectful of one another, and prepare our children for our increasingly interconnected world.

Perhaps it is best to subject our respective interests in religion in schools to the Judgement of Solomon. Shall we split the children and give each religious group a part of the school day? Or shall we keep our children together and educate them to be knowledgeable and respectful of the many traditions that make up modern Australia? As a father, I find this an easy choice.



Tim Heasley is Chair of the Fairness in Religions in School (FIRIS) Campaign, parent and school council president.