The Australian Christian Lobby has just opened a assault on the education system in Australia, and now we get to see whether Australian politicians can defend the very foundations of this country … the secular foundations.
If you are a person who values the secular traditions that underpin our laws and things like our education system, now you get to see if you are at the mercy of a tiny minority who want to impose their religious agenda on you and your children. Here is what is going on, if you haven’t been following along at home:
In May, the Minister of Education in Victoria, Martin Dixon, issued “Ministerial Directive 141” which is not a new law, but rather a clarification of how state schools in Victoria are supposed to operate, with relationship to the practice of “Special Religious Instruction” in Victoria (this is one of the states in the Commonwealth of Australia, for you people reading this from overseas). The Minister of Education has the power to make rules that apply to the 1200 or so primary schools, which educate around 60% children in Victoria. There are about 300K children in Victoria’s state run primary schools.
The “Ministerial Directive” has the effect of law, (it is 7 pages long), and deals with the conditions under which Victorian Schools are supposed to deal with people from outside the schools who which to teach religion in schools, which is provided for in the 1950’s era amendment to the Education Act (of Victoria) which is currently called section 2.2.11.
Today, Jewel Topsfield, writing in the AGE, reported that Prayer Groups were banned in Schools. The choice of terms here is because of an assault launched last week by the tiny, but ambiguous “Australian Christian Lobby”, who have chosen to attack the Minister of Education as “banning prayer groups” … the question is will they win?
The Christian Lobby has spun this as an “assault on religious freedom”. It is nothing of the sort, but in launching this attack, we get to watch if Australian politicians can stand up for the ideas that underpin our nation.
Why does this matter? It matters a great deal because, Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) has chosen to go “all in” on this matter and if the Minister of Education yields to them, then it means that a small group of radical right leaning activists who claim to speak for Christians give marching orders to the people who run our schools, and its a challenge to the very definition of what secularism means in Australia and it is an important test to see if anyone, in a position of political power, knows how to argue in defense of “secular education” in Australia.
Speaking as a long time advocate of the meaning and moral purpose of secular education, I have to admit, I’m scared. I’m scared because in the course of history, great changes can be imposed by just few determined individuals. The Christian Lobby in Australia works very hard to take away the hard won freedoms of Australians and to impose on people, their ideas of what a good society is like, and they do it, just as they have done here, by lying to you.
This issue is a good “case study” of how they operate, and its nice for a change, to see them not talking about how awful gay people are. If you listen to what they are saying, it is classic right wing agit prop. They claim that Martin Dixon has “banned prayer”. Nothing of the sort has happened, but no matter, ACL is spinning this using tropes that appeal to easily manipulated fears.
If you want to test how absurd this is, go to your local school, sit down on a bench in the playground and say a prayer. No storm troopers will arrive. No matter how long you sit there and pray, no official will harass you for praying.
What is really going on here is that finally, the Department of Education has told evangelical christians that they can not use our schools as “mission fields” and they can not send their pastoral staff into our schools as an extension of their “youth ministry”. This happens in a lot of ways, but ground zero in this case is the Youth Pastor at St. Hilary, in Kew, Peter Carolane, who runs a program called “Mustard“.
This kind of program is dear to the Australian Christian Lobby because it provides a vital “open door” to evangelism in schools. Here is how the program is described:
In 2003 a seed of an idea blossomed into existence when Peter Carolane saw a need for high school students to be engaged in genuine conversations about Jesus. At the time Peter was ministering to young people in a local church with proximity to a large number of schools, and he was receiving regular invitations from chaplains and other school workers to minister in their contexts. Peter was backed by his church to create an independent schools ministry called Mustard where he would join with other passionate individuals from across Melbourne to support Christian students in their school lives and engage a large number of students with the message of Jesus. Peter and his friends had faith the size of a Mustard seed…
In Australia, youth pastors, have “proximity” to “a large number of schools” and they are free to open their doors and invite everyone to join them in worship … this is not enough “religious freedom” what they want is the freedom to be allowed to operate INSIDE the public schools. It is not enough “freedom” to stand outside the schools and “invite” people to pray with them, they want to be allowed to “run programs” inside the schools.
What the Minister of Education has said is, something to the effect of “our schools are not your mission fields”. This is really no different that if the minister of Education had said to the Liberal Party or the Labor Party, that they can not go into schools at lunchtime and hold political rallies. For the most part, it is simply understood by private corporations and political parties that schools are not venues created for their benefit, and that common decency means that the people who run the schools are not supposed to be targeted for political activism so you can promote your agenda or sell your products to the children in the schools.
The angle chosen by the ACL in this matter is wildly dishonest. They neglect to disclose in their agit prop that what has been supposedly banned, is not “prayer by students” but the proposition that “youth pastors” like Peter Carolane, who are ordained priests (in this case) should be allowed to make schools an annex of their churches.
The ACL are counting on people buying into their spin that the Minister of Education is stopping children from owning the bible, or reading the bible, or praying … when what is really going on that the Minister of Education has wisely said, “our schools are not venues where groups like Hillsong, or “Mustard’ – which are run as businesses by tax exempt corporations can have a licence to operate.
A policy like this is a good policy – schools are not “mission fields” and Australians have a right to expect that our schools are not operating as extensions of Hillsong or St. Hilary’s in Kew. No one’s religious freedom is imposed on by asking St. Hilary’s in Kew to abstain from using local schools as a venue for “ministry”.
Now we get to see if Australian politicians, who are right now being targeted by a dishonest and hysterical group of evangelicals, will “make a stand” … or if they will blink and hand over our children as a “mission field”.
FIRIS can only do so much … I have personally been attacked, on our social media, for being “anti secular” by prominent “atheist activists” and by prominent “Christian Political Activists”, specifically because I have called for a “secular” policy in our schools, which relies on the good will of all Australians to safeguard the religious freedoms and private rights that families have to follow or not follow a religion and I say, our schools should not be cutting deals with groups seeking to “make disciples” of other people’s children.
The Australian Christian Lobby has thrown down a challenge, and it will be interesting to see if their dishonest tactics work. Should religious groups be allowed to send people into schools to organise worship and recruitment programs? That is what the Minister of Education has made rules about – and these are good rules, I think they should be stronger, because no religious group should set policy in our schools and people should accept that religious freedom in this country means accepting that we all agree to pursue our religious ideals, without appropriating public property and public policy.
St. Hilary wants to run a youth ministry inside our schools … we respectfully say, “that’s just not on”.
The premises of the Australian Christian Lobby are totally wrong … no we get to see if anyone cares to “make a stand”. Are our schools run as extension offices for “youth pastors” on a “mission” or are they public institutions which religious groups must respect as “off limits’. No child in Victoria is harmed because religious groups must all agree to refrain from using our schools. We should all agree to while school is in session, “youth ministry” is not part of the syllabus.
The Christian Lobby says wants you to think this isn’t fair … I say that they are lying to you, and that politicians need to hold this line.
Stay tuned, you now get to see if our political leaders are owned by the ACL or if they understand the most hallowed of Australian ideals … everyone is free to pray, but that isn’t what the ACL wants. They want to have a franchise to use our schools as “mission fields”.
If you want to see what this looks like: