Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (21:29): I am an atheist. I grew up with a strong belief that freedom of religion is fundamental to democracy. In my teenage years, I was fortunate enough to be a member of the Young Humanists. There were some wonderful times that further strengthened my respect for and interest in different beliefs and different viewpoints.

I was growing up when the US, with Australian support, was waging war in South-East Asia. Millions of people in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were killed. This brutality brought home to me that those who cannot countenance any views at variance with their own create a recipe for civil unrest, oppression and an authoritarian state. These days I am troubled by the intolerance political leaders like Prime Minister Turnbull and US President Donald Trump use to retain power. Today’s announcement by the Prime Minister that 18C is on the chopping block is an attack on the tolerance and respect our society is built on. We need to remind ourselves that Australia is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is worth remembering the exact words of article 18. It states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion…

Everyone has the right—

… to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

And no-one will be coerced into or prevented from adopting or manifesting a religion or belief.

Belief refers to all personal worldviews, religious or otherwise, that influence our understanding of the universe and everyday behaviour. I certainly believe that is how we should interpret it. It also requires not only freedom of one’s own belief but also freedom from the imposition of belief by others. So it would seem that all modern states agree to the requirement that the state itself cannot impose or direct any religious position on its citizens. It must support religious tolerance and respect for minority views and ensure equality of all beliefs before the law. In other words, a secular state defends human rights and remains strictly separate from any religious institution.

However, these universal rights in fact are frequently and seriously eroded in many countries, including Australia. There are some startling examples around the world. Saudi Arabia, a member of the UN Human Rights Council, has recently imposed a new so-called terrorism law which prohibits any atheist thought in any form and any disloyalty to the country’s rulers or criticism of Islam. There is a death sentence for apostasy. Similar positions are espoused by Islamic nations wishing a strict form of sharia law. In India Prime Minister Modi and his Hindu fundamentalist BJP party have become associated with book banning and censorship that curtails other religions and viewpoints. The Buddhist government of Sri Lanka has systematically committed cultural genocide towards the Hindu Tamil minority, destroying temples, raping women and confiscating land.

These are just a few examples that arise when nation states are ruled by religion. This too often leads to abuse. Catholic dominated countries such as Poland and Ireland have banned women from accessing abortions, and are causing so much harm, tragedy and death in the course of that very bad policy. Christian and Muslim fundamentalism and all religious fundamentalisms are products of the intolerance, racism and extremism that go hand in hand with religious states.

In Australia, our constitution does not link our society with any religion. However, when it comes to the separation of state and church we are not doing very well. In 2009, J Perkins and F Gomez, in their paper Taxes and subsidies: the cost of ‘advancing religion’, printed in the Australian Humanist, estimated that the annual gross cost of religion to the Australian taxpayer is $31 billion. It makes for a fascinating read. The big cost is tax exemption granted to the powerful, big Christian churches. They are extremely wealthy, with enormous land and building resources for which they pay no rates. In by far the majority of cases they were given the land for free. Arguably, the budget deficit could be erased if the big churches paid their fair share of tax. The Catholic Church, in particular, is a powerful political lobby. The church hierarchy believes in the sanctity of marriage between man and woman, the rights of the foetus over the rights of the mother and homosexuality is a sin, as is abortion.

Religious intolerance has been the driver of much discrimination in our society. Until recently, people were jailed for homosexual behaviour. Marriage equality is still not legal. Abortion remains a criminal offence under New South Wales law. All this is despite the fact that the clear majority of Australians believe these bans are undemocratic and a violation of citizens’ rights to act on their own beliefs. I certainly acknowledge that there are many religious people who strongly advocate for an end to all these forms of discrimination, but the religious institutions in this country have power that is destructive, undemocratic and not respectful of other views.

Scripture in public schools is a stand-out example of where the power of religious groups needs to be reined in. Growing up in an atheist household, I remember my parents regularly emphasising how important it was for me to respect people of all faiths. I was at primary school in the 1960s. When it came time for scripture most students went to what was then called Church of England scripture. There were also Catholic and Jewish scripture at my school. In the playground, however, religion did not figure at all in how we viewed each other—or anything for that matter. I attended non-scripture classes, but what I quickly found out was that were no actual classes. I was either sat on my own or given jobs while the other students went to scripture classes. When I was given the job of cleaning the toilets during non-scripture time I knew something was wrong. Today I do not hear of students being sent to clean the toilets as an alternative to scripture classes, but we still have a long way to go. Religion inserts itself into public education in Australia where it should not be. If parents wish to have their children instructed in a religious faith, that should not be done within the public education system.

Since 2006 the federal government has funded the National School Chaplaincy Program. The program was brought in by former Prime Minister John Howard. The chaplains are paid to provide general support for students, not specific denomination instruction. They are not qualified to deal with mental health issues, bullying, and relationship or sexual advice.

Most chaplains are sourced from explicitly evangelical organisations, often providing programs that are apparently designed to provide support and friendship, but which in fact aim to—and this comes from their material—’make God’s good news known to children’. The employment of chaplains and the teaching of Scripture do not give equal respect to the multitude of other mainstream religions or alternative denominations, nor to the 23 per cent of people in Australia who have no religion. Indeed, the explicit aim of many Christian organisations is to convert children while they are young and impressionable.

Most Australian states do have education acts that specify that government schools will provide a secular education, one that does not promote one set of religious beliefs over another. Sounds good; however, special religious instruction is provided in most schools, usually offered by church volunteers. The New South Wales Department of Education has confirmed it has had Crown Solicitor’s advice that a New South Wales education minister:

… does not have the power to control the contents of SRE—

special religious education—

under the current provisions of the Education Act.

That is wrong, deeply wrong.

Recent reviews in Queensland and New South Wales have raised concerns about the content of Scripture classes. Members of the New South Wales Department of Education’s special religious education committee have stated that the aim of Scripture in New South Wales public schools is ‘teaching all to obey Jesus Christ’. Yet, as noted by some senior church leaders and by the Greens’ state justice spokesperson, David Shoebridge, much of the material is out of date and inappropriate for children. Worse, it can place children at risk of child abuse. In practice, parents are given little information or alternative options. Students either conform to the standard Christian scripture class, or else they are required to engage in menial, boring, punitive tasks that can create a negative label for those students.

Religious organisations are exploiting out-of-date legislation and flawed education department policies, like those we have in New South Wales, to treat public schools as an open door to promoting their religion. The New South Wales Department of Education’s special religious education committee is made up of members of the SRE lobby, which has said that the aim of Scripture, as I said, is about teaching children to obey Jesus Christ. Nearly 90 per cent of the approved SRE providers in New South Wales are Christian. The system does not respect the rights of students, parents or caregivers with nonreligious beliefs, and I would argue that people of other faiths are not being respected either. As I said, I would argue that that should be outside the education department, but at the moment many people’s children are being pulled into a Christian Scripture when they may wish their children to be taught otherwise.

Over a year, special religious education takes up 20 to 40 hours of curriculum time while that religious education is taking place. Students not participating in this religious education are not allowed to engage in academic instruction or formal school activities. I really do strongly urge people who are following this—and I hope people do—to look at the reports that have come out of the Queensland Department of Education and Training. They have actually looked at some of the religious education coming out of New South Wales, including Sydney Anglican’s Connect program and other materials used in New South Wales. They have found that they have contained material: that is inappropriate for the target age group; that has topics that include murder, prostitution and animal sacrifice; that may encourage undesirable child behaviours, such as keeping of secrets and the formation of special friendships with adults—likened to possible grooming behaviour; that has the potential to affect the social and emotional wellbeing of particular students; that can be seen as aimed at converting students to Christianity. The full title of that report is Report on the review of the Connect religious instruction materials from August 2016. It was put out by the Queensland government’s Department of Education and Training.

Coming back to New South Wales: when it comes to religious education and when it comes to our education system with regard to how religion is being handled, the system is just not good enough. The law states that the Minister for Education has no control over what is taught during special religious education. Special religious education is actually not delivered by teachers who are employed by the Department of Education, but is delivered by sometimes paid but usually volunteer representatives of religious organisations. A Department of Education teacher does not even need to be present during SRE. When you consider the standards that I think many people hope and believe our schools follow, particularly with police checks that are run on people who work with children, the lack of standards when it comes to special religious education, at least in New South Wales, is quite extraordinary.

As well as a Department of Education teacher not needing to be present during special religious education, principals can put children into special religious education without consent from parents and caregivers. The department does not even have a policy that makes it clear that those people volunteering, the volunteering SRE instructors, are not to try to convert students to their religious education program, their churches or their religion. That is why I said that you can see why parents are raising their concerns, that it is about capturing children while they are very young and converting them to usually Christian religions. The law requires principals to actually divide students up based on the religious beliefs of their parents and caregivers and send them to special religious education, where they receive instructions in the beliefs and practices of one religion. Special religious education is not inclusive. It is not education about world religions. By far in the main it is about the Christian religion. That is why I made that emphasis before. I think the whole system is wrong, and not just for non-religious people but for people of other faiths. How this system is being run is clearly troubling and certainly undemocratic.

This is quote from a former special religious education teacher at a high school: ‘As a scripture teacher there is rarely a day where I do not tell students the message of Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no-one else”. The message of the Bible is that you will be sent to hell unless you repent of your sin and trust in Jesus for your salvation. You need to do it now.’ So the situation is troubling.

What I would argue is that education about religions in state schools should be delivered by teachers employed by the education department. I am certainly not arguing that religion should not be talked about or taught in our schools, but it should be taught by teachers about different religious beliefs not as a belief system where a particular church or a particular belief system, a particular faith, is being promoted to try and capture those students into that particular faith. It should be done in a way that is respectful of the secular nature of our state schools. Religion should be another part of our education, rather than being about promoting a faith.

The Greens support the New South Wales Department of Education statement that: ‘Schools are neutral grounds for rational discourse and objective study’. But a lot of work needs to happen to get it back to that point. We also support FIRIS, Fairness In Religions In School. It is a very fine organisation that believes that the education department should apply its policies consistently and fairly throughout every school day.

I would really urge people to acquaint themselves with this issue. Increasingly, education is becoming more and more important. I think that is becoming more widely recognised. It needs to be done in a way that is inclusive, respectful and is not about pushing barrows of certain faiths. I am not arguing that those faiths do not have a place in our society. I respect that. But our education system should not be used to indoctrinate young people. Religion, in terms of promoting faith, should be separate from our education system. Thank you.