There is a great deal of misunderstanding about why FIRIS has taken the position that the NSW Ethics Program is “a problem”.

The pedagogy underpinning the program is exemplary, and in and of itself, this outstanding approach to ethical inquiry should be part of every teacher’s repertoire, after all the primary purpose of giving away education to citizens is to invest in the programme of self government (democracy) we should be eager to have ethically sophisticated people to select our government.

The problem comes in when we look at the context and facts of what transpired in NSW and when we accept that the “ethics” policy was designed to deal with a symptom, caused by an injustice, but for political (and only political) reasons leave the cause of the injustice unmolested.

In the words of the architect of the solution, Simon Longstaff, the proposed ethic instruction, “extended” (enlarged) what I argue is the cause of the injustice in the first place.  Longstaff, chose to use the term “complement”, to signal that he wanted in no way impose on the legal right of religious bodies to have use of one hour per week of the schools in NSW.

Here are his words:

St James Ethics Centre has proposed that all of the material that might be created, as part of any program to develop an ethics-based course of study, should be provided to faith groups for their use in scripture classes. This proposal has been made so as to ensure that we do not fall foul of the charge that we are drawing people away from scripture through the provision of learning material that is not available to those attending SRE. As such, the program will involve the development of material that will be offered both as an alternative to scripture and for others as a complement to scripture. In the end, we opted for the description ‘complement’ as it captures the more inclusive dimension of what we have in mind and clearly signals our intentions to build rather than bring down.

So unless Longstaff is lying, and I don’t think he is, everyone who sings “free at last, free at last” to the promised land of ethics – has in actual fact, worked to expand what FIRIS argues – is the problem:  a policy that grants religious groups the right to control part of the school curriculum, we’ll get at why this is wrong, but for the time being, lets follow the story.

Longstaff has been very clear about what he believes the problem in our schools is a “social injustice” which emerged, from the policy that forbid children to receive any kind of instruction during the time set aside for religious groups to teach religion.  What began as a “right to teach”, had been expanded, in practice, to a policy of “no competition”.  It wasn’t just that churches had a right to teach, the minister was also obligated to limit the alternatives to those who wished to exercise their right to not participate.  In practice this was a kind of mini sabbath law, we forbid the delivery of newspapers on Sunday for similar, religious reasons, how could people be free to worship, if they were distracted by the newspaper.

The policy of “do not compete” is not in the law itself – the law granted a right to children to “request religious instruction from a denomination of their choosing” .  In other research, how this came to be has been documented in peer reviewed literature, and the actual story is different from the popular understanding,  but for our purposes – its sufficient to accept that that the law gives a granted use of the schools to churches, but the Minister of Education, responding to the demands of the churches, expanded that law, to prohibit what children not requesting religious instruction could do with their time, and he also expanded the kinds of ways that churches could delegate and franchise these rights (the proliferation of parachurch ministry, which aren’t even churches, but groups set up to do the work of churches and the , the freelancing of cowboy evangelists, etc …

Here again, is Longstaff:

 The Education Act 1990 (Articles 32 and 33) protects the provision of religious instruction and the child’s right to opt out, but does not stipulate anywhere that those whose parents make the decision to opt out must not have access to meaningful instruction during this period.

This position is stipulated in the NSW Department of Education Policy:

Schools are to provide appropriate care and supervision at school for students not attending SRE. This may involve students in other activities such as completing homework, reading and private study. These activities should neither compete with SRE nor be alternative lessons in the subjects within the curriculum or other areas, such as ethics, values, civics or general religious education …

It would therefore be simple to amend the current policy to allow a secular complement to scripture.

Indeed it was, much simpler to pressure the schools on the issue of “do not compete” than the ethics advocates made it, this was in large part because no one in NSW chose to simply demand justice – for its own sake.  Longstaff’s bid to correct the injustice, involved a rather complicated argument that overlooks the meaning of religious dogma, and magnifies an ancillary part of religious thought, namely, its efforts to grapple with questions of “right and wrong” .

Here again is how Longstaff put it:

NSW Department of Education policy prohibits children, who are not attending scripture, from receiving any formal instruction during this period, and specifically not in the area of ‘ethics, values, civics and general religious education’.

In the past the NSW Department of Education has held the view that offering such formal instruction, would pose a possible conflict of interest for students attending SRE, and their parents.

St James Ethics Centre (the Centre), and those for whom it is advocating, view NSW Department of Education policy as socially unjust – all children ought to be entitled to ethical exploration and its associated benefits, regardless of their parent’s religious persuasion.

Contemporary research has empirically linked the opportunity to explore purpose, meaning and virtues with vital youth mental health. By denying any children this opportunity, we are essentially denying them an opportunity to contribute to their own well-being and, by extension, that of the community.

This argument totally overlooks the facts about why SRE is such a valued franchise, “child evangelists” are not in the schools because they want to facilitate “ethical inquiry” (which is why they spit the dummy when the idea was floated) they are in the schools to convert children to follow their religion.  Longstaff, in his effort to gain the support of his adversaries avoided the obvious issues that arise when religion encroaches into a school of diverse religious belief, or on the segregation of children as a bad thing itself, instead, he focused on the idea that the problem is that non attending children, were being denied a chance to explore: purpose, meaning and virtues.

This is not at all why parents opt their children out of “SRE/SRI” … parents opt out, and this is a very disingenuous way to refer to what actually happens in confessional, dogmatic religious instruction, and it also neglects to mention that we’re dealing with very young children – five years old in many cases.

Saying that ACCESS Ministry’s predations in a prep class are an exercise in exploring, purpose, meaning and virtues – its like saying that flying to Broome is a way to “explore the Pilbara”, sure you might see the Pilbara but all you are doing is going on a plane to Broome, or in the case of ACCESS – to be told how God has a plan for you that your parents are hiding from you.  If you don’t believe this, please watch this.

Longstaff’s framing of the issue dignifies “Child Evangelism” in ways I find hard to excuse.

So For those of you (eg. Ian Bryce) who assert that FIRIS has not accomplished anything, by not serving up a program to EXPAND the scope of SRI (as Longstaff has) please understand – that within one year of initiating our campaign, we accomplished, an outcome very similar to what took place in NSW – in other words  we got the DEECD to agree to drop the “do not compete” clause which had evolved along the same fashion as it had in NSW.  Not only that, we got this with far less sturm und drang than it took in NSW to do it.

Today, in Victoria, schools are free to offer anything alongside religion – ethics, basketry, dance, botany, balloon animals  anything they want – as long as it isn’t material considered “core curriculum” (whatever that is), in other words, any school in VIC can offer “ethics” alongside “SRI”, if they want, just like in NSW.

So in a policy sense – NSW and VIC are about in the same place, only in Victoria the alternatives to SRI are essentially infinite and do not depend on a third party vendor, (Primary Ethics)  and can be parent directed at the local level, whereas, in NSW, it is very restrictive, and a secular alternative can only be delivered by “Primary Ethics”, who own the franchise.

Longstaff, and his supporters (which ironically is most parents in NSW) are in effect like the dog who chased the car, AND CAUGHT IT.

Just as a dog that has clamped onto a car isn’t about to stop the car, Longstaff and his followers are being dragged down the road by the much more organized and committed community of “Child Evangelists”.  The sad part in all this, is that Longstaff and the majority of parents didn’t have to act like a dog, and go after the car, the could have stood on two legs and used their voice to make the clear argument that our schools are not “mission fields” … alas, they didn’t.

To make matters worse, I’d argue, they can’t – they no longer have a right to actually object – because they got what they wanted, “the right to offer ethics as compliment to scripture”.  All of this cluck clucking about how ethics is going to siphon kids out of SRI is bunkum.

So from here on out, any time you, a parent in NSW, object to the use of your school as a “mission field”, you will be told that the “solution” on hand is to find a volunteer “special ethics instructor”.  Never mind that only 1% of the children currently have access to such an instructor.   Longstaff has on behalf of the citizens of NSW, assented to finding something on the order of 4,000 volunteers – this is why I call it “unworkable”, and others call it a “sham”.

For most kids in NSW, justice will always be over the horizon.

But don’t take my word for it, the churches, who bitterly opposed all of this, have, except for the insane Christianist, Fred Nile, come round to seeing this for the pyrrhic victory that it was:

The Anglican and Catholic churches, previously loud, well- funded and well-organised opponents of Ethics classes, reversed their opposition to the classes. The leading opponent to the introduction of ethics classes in NSW schools, the Anglican Church, has reversed its position and says they should be retained, while the Catholic Church now argues they should not be removed as they have ”little impact” on the teaching of scripture. (SMH 21 July, 2011)

Ironically if you click on the SMH story, you see this photo:

A Child Evangelist works a room in a NSW primary school, on the board the words, “ETERNITY” signal what this is really about – a missionary effort to convince children that their salvation depends on the bible – your tax dollars at work.

What NSW can no longer do, not that anyone ever tried – is assert that there are important principles at stake, because, the response to any demand for justice will be, “well you can organize an ethics class”.

Why do I insist  that this is a matter of justice?  Well first of all – these schools don’t belong to churches or other religious groups.  As far as our government, the school principal, or any teacher is concerned, the only children in the schools are “Australian Children”, and as much as it will pain Greg Clarke to hear it, the salvation of these children, is really none of the business of the Minister of Education – as far as state schools and state policy, salvation is the job of the church – and should not be timetabled, or made the object of administrative responsibility in our schools.  My child should not have to answer the question, “do you want to leave the room during salvation class”?

Perhaps what I mean is best expressed by a mother:

As soon as SRE is imposed on a school, we have to start segregating kids – Jews here, Christians here, Muslims over here, etc … it was never a good idea to cave into the sectarian divisions that want to claim our children, which is exactly what is going on.  Parents like Katie, and me, are perfectly competent to attend to the religious formation of our families.  We can easily engage with churches and church teachings if we want, on our own, outside of school, and as citizens in a secular country, its our duty to see to it that we attend to this responsibility.  The injustice comes when we have to submit ourselves to differential treatment, because the government has entered into a legal contract (and subjected us to it) with religious group – that is why the grant of time in the school is wrong, its wrong in that it has the unconstitutional effect of endorsing religion (and if you don’t think what parents are told about what goes on in SRI is an endorsement, you’re a fool) and second, it co-occurs with a mandate for our children to attend the school.

The church wants to avail itself of the power vested in the executive branch of government – your children have to be in the school, and when they are – BAM, its BIG RESCUE BIBLE time.

FIRIS is not trying to reduce the ill treatment of the kids who opt out of SRI – we are objecting to it happening at all.

FIRIS has as simple, four part “statement of aims” – which are:

  1. Maintain an inclusive school curriculum that does not require any student to withdraw from class on account of different religious beliefs
  2. Formally cease the practice of volunteer-run special religious instruction (SRI) during school hours
  3. Follow an objective, fair and balanced comparative syllabus for education about religions and beliefs
  4. Treat all religious organisations who wish to use the school facilities outside of the school day with transparent and equitable policies

So if Longstaff and Ethics aren’t the solution, what is?

There are two possible “real solutions” one is principled and relies on educators rising to the challenge their profession puts to them, the other is kind of a side step of the problem, trying at all costs to avoid any tough talk with Australia’s “Child Evangelists”.

In a subsequent post, I’ll sketch out the way these might look – if we took the secular principle seriously, and recognised that we could do a lot better than wallowing in either shallow evangelical dogma, or ignorance (not that there is a big difference between these two).