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The public’s schools aren’t the public square: Dickson’s abuse of the secular principle



John Dickson’s latest talking point in the rear guard action to defend SRE is to confuse the “public square” with the “public schools”.  Dickson’s gambit is to avoid talking about the real impact SRE has on education or the specifics of how SRE in NSW is administered – and to play the victim card against FIRIS, our supporters and the education profession, by arguing that removing SRE is the same as “excluding religion“.

Because Dickson is playing a culture war game, his choice of language is shot through with culture war tropes, such as this.  It is absurd to claim, as he does, that the curriculum and management of public education in NSW should be administered as if it was a”public square”, yet Dickson soldiers on in his effort to muddle the public understanding of this policy issue by turning it into a culture war shibboleth.

FIRIS certainly isn’t proposing to “ban religion” when it argues that the SRE policy is a bad policy – yet those are the binary choices that Dickson offers his flock.  Dickson’s gambit turns this discussion into a zero sum game, but these terms, while seeming to offer refuge politically by making this issue a “no go” zone for politicians, ultimately doom Dickson’s interests.  The advocates of SRE are destined to loose, because FIRIS occupies all of the moral high ground on this issue.  SRE is bad policy, we oppose it, our efforts will, eventually, see it removed from the schools, but this improvement in education policy does not remotely constitute a “ban” or an “exclusion” of “religion” from either the schools, or the “public square”.

Dickson, and the para-church ministries he fronts, like the Bible Society, YouthWorks, Gener8 Ministries, Scripture Union, Campus Crusade for Christ, etc … will all continue to exist, they will, for example freely gather at the Lausanne Conferences and publish elaborate strategies about how to convert everyone in the whole world follow their religion.

Show me an advocate of SRE and I'll show you someone who isn't looking for their religious freedom, but instead for your conversion to their religion

Show me an advocate of SRE and I’ll show you someone who isn’t looking for their religious freedom, but instead for your conversion to their religion

All that will change for these para-church groups as a result of the FIRIS campaign, will be that they will no longer operate during the time set aside for education during the compulsory school day, with the endorsement of the Department of Education – which is really what this is about.

These groups aren’t battling for their existence, they are fighting for a franchise to use our schools as venues for mission.  The reason for his is easy to understand – because schools are places where children are required (by law) to attend, the staff and the teachers of the schools, as well as the amenity of the buildings  and administrative structure are under a legal obligation to host the clergy and other “approved” SRE providers, what these groups value – and lets be clear – this is valuable, is the administration of their program, which is not a personal freedom, but a public grant of substantial scope and scale.  John Dickson isn’t seeking a right to use the public square, he’s seeking a right to commandeer part of the apparatus of public education.

To put a price on this, divide the total annual school budget & the rent on the assets by 3% – and that amount would be something like a fair price that the public is paying so John Dickson and Michael Jensen, and others can conduct “mission” in Australian Government Schools.

FIRIS, says:  this is wrong and should be stopped because its a terrible policy.

Dickson isn’t seeking a right to offer religious instruction, he is seeking the maintenance of a grant of executive and legislative licence to operate within an environment that is compulsory, and paid for under clear operating principles for which he seeks an exception*.  He and others seek to influence the behavior of others through the authority society vests in the schools.  This is why we have arguments over the content of information on government forms, why there is something called “non Scripture”, why there is politics around this, and why there is a statue in force.  These things (policies & laws) make up a franchise which Dickson is loathe to see taken from his “corporate” interests.

Rather than discuss this issue grounded in reason, his efforts are all directed at fueling a culture war stoush which begins by confusing the education system in NSW with something he’s fond of calling, a “Public Square”.


Consider for a second that the legislature passed a law that gave 3% of all the school books to Coca-Cola Amatil.  For example for every 100 pages of educational material, 3 of the pages were set aside for Coca-Cola advertising and promotion.  Would this seem absurd?  What if I argued that restricting Coca-Cola from using 3% of the school’s text books was an imposition on the right that Coke has to “access the public square”?  Would I be taken seriously?

But this is exactly the same argument that Dickson is making, and it is absurd.

The Public Schools are NOT the "Public Square".

The Public Schools are NOT the “Public Square”.


Advocates of policy reform, should not however take comfort in the fact that Dickson and SRE’s advocates are making absurd arguments – because they rely on broad public confusion over just why our schools are “secular” in the first place, and an increasingly apathetic population who can be fooled by making arguments about the “cultural role” that the christian religion plays in the humanities.

More troubling however is that Dickson can exploit a historical lack clarity around the term “secular” to re-imagine the past, and to cast the NSW policy as some kind of foundational touchstone for a “healthy” form of secular society.


Dickson will get a lot of mileage from this tactic, which is shameful coming from a man of such obvious interest in history.  The reality of Australian history and especially the relation of religion and education is Australia is much less flattering to organized religion.

If you are interested in a detailed analysis of this question, and how the matter played out while Australia was still a colony of the British Empire, this paper traces the issue in the debates and shows how clergy have relentlessly worked to prevent the secular principle from being realized in Australian schooling.  Dickson is indeed acting out a historical role – but its a pernicious one, and something that Australians hopefully will not be duped into leaving by the road, as self interested sectarian interests – have always sought to advance their factional interests at the expense of the public good.


* The various legislative provisions that extend the right for clergy to access public schools were created as exceptions to the principles of public education, mainly due to political power held by clergy.  Australia led the world in the creation of a system of education – which recognised that the the public’s interest in education did not extend to, nor seek to suppress religious observance, and did not extend to religious doctrine, which the state leaves in the hands of churches and religious groups who are free to assemble and worship in Australia.

The important thing about Australian education is that the the public’s role in providing education to its citizens was always limited – and sought to avoid “the religious question”.  The reason for this however is that during the colonial period, the colonists found that clerical control of education was a disaster – so they terminated the longstanding tradition of leaving education in the hands of churches and created “public instruction acts”.  That we have “public education” at all, was a social response to the pernicious influence that churches sought to impose on society by cleaving citizens into sectarian groups.


Does John Dickson think we’re fools?



Rev. John Dickson’s insistence that SRE in our schools is not animated by a desire to proselytise has become a farce.

A kind of court theater.  A jest.

On Noel Debien’s ABC Sunday night radio show, (Sunday, August 2, 2015), audio of a training film put out by the Bible Society was played for Dickson’s response.

FIRIS asserts that this material, is part of an extensive curriculum and training resource pointed at SRE teachers and unequivocally part of a pattern that demonstrates that SRE volunteers are being encouraged by the peak bodies and parachurch ministries that exploit the legislated SRE franchise, to proselytise to captive groups of children.  We assert furthermore that the SRE providers rely on the trust that parents place in the Department of Education, as an implied “stamp of approval”, when really there is no departmental oversight of this material at all.

Furthermore we assert that the groups who promote SRE tell parents one thing, and actively encourage another thing.

The Bible Society funds John Dickson’s apologetics shop, “Centre for Public Christianity”, and the Bible Society published the “Wild Bible Curriculum“.

John said that he was not “sure of the status of the video” and he claimed that the video was “not shown to children”, and he asserted that the material was not “approved curriculum”.

The facts in this example are that this video was designed as a tool to train SRE instructors, and that the materials described in the video, are printed “lesson plans” for use in SRE.  This is all quite clearly articulated in the videos themselves, and the lessons are published by John’s primary funding body.

So we’ve shown a video of a man who goes into state schools, dresses kids in a hessian sack, puts them in chains and a jester’s cap and tells them that the only salvation from sin is through belief in Jesus – and SRE’s defenders will still persist in attempting to sell us the line that SRE is not used for proselytising.

The mind reels.  SRE teachers aren’t the only ones who can hand out jester’s hats!

Watch the video and see for yourself.






Can Zac Veron use plain language when soliciting parents to enroll in SRE?

Zac Veron is the CEO of the Youthworks SRE franchise that operates in NSW.  He is the Evonne Paddison of NSW.  Evonne recently resigned after years of claiming that her organisation, ACCESS Ministries, “did not proselytise”.  Evonne made this claim despite also giving this speech, which laid out her strategy to proselytise.

Evonne proved, and Zac Veron seems to be confirming, that the CEO’s of Youth Ministry groups can’t be trusted to account for their true intentions.  So while we don’t yet have a tape of Zac Veron blatantly articulating how his ministry group seeks lost youth whose parents can not be trusted to raise them in his religion, we will just have to trust that he’s not trying to deceive anyone.

Having changed the terms on which SRI operates in Victoria, FIRIS has recently expanded the scope of its campaign to change the landscape for SRE in NSW and because of this, Zac Veron has to address the issues surrounding the policy in NSW against a highly effective FIRIS campaign, which has as its core tool:  honesty.  We simply show what SRE is, how it works and tell why it should not be in schools.

Zac Veron is correct that one of our core messages is that SRE/SRI is proselytising.  The campaign has now moved into the phase where the CEO’s of Ministry groups like Zac, stand up to deny that they exist to proselytise.

In his latest blog post, Rev. Veron has taken to the web to argue in effect that:

1.  Youthworks don’t proselytise by calling for conversions in class, but when they do, (ie when FIRIS catches them out) its not their fault, it is a mistake, because (start over at beginning of sentence).  Zac is in essence saying that his classes don’t involve “pressure” to convert.


2.  Youthworks exists to instruct children in faith (and the law makes this legal for them to do inside our schools), which makes what they do instruction which is not proselytising, because the people in SRE classes have chosen to sign up for this program, hence they are not being converted, they are being instructed in their chosen religion.

In essence, what Zac is saying is that his lessons are “for Christians”, so don’t be offended if your child is woken at night with nightmares about being a sinner, because – Zac isn’t responsible for “what is in the bible”, and he essentially defines away proselytising by using it to mean “coerce” or “pressure” in a way that is outside of the kinds of coercion or pressure which he designates as “acceptable”.

Read Zac’s piece here:



Lately he, like Rob Ward of ACCESS Ministry have been thanking FIRIS for helping them clean up the SRE/SRI program, which they swear they have all along been wanting to see improved.  It has just been providence that the FIRIS campaign has been ordained to create the conditions under which their improvements can take place.

We at FIRIS are grateful for this kind recognition of our role in helping tighten the ship of SRE/SRI.

It is in that spirit then that we offer this challenge to Rev. Veron.  Since you forthrightly state in your essay that:

[Youthworks] educates students in the Christian faith by teaching biblical truths such as universal sin and that Jesus the Son of God became flesh and reconciled us to God through his death and resurrection.

We would like to ask that this “purpose” is clearly communicated to parents in your sign up and promotional materials.

If you are sincere about only wanting families who approve and fully understand what you do, to take your classes, why not use language substantially like the above when recruiting for participants and when marketing your program?

We think you avoid doing this.  For an example of the kind of information that is used to market SRE to parents, see this, from the “overview” page from the YouthWorks website.   Here you will find words like “ethical”, “holistic”, “moral”, “nurturing”, and “faith”.  What you will not find are words like “sin”, “death”, “resurrection”, and “biblical truth”.

While you are correct in asserting that the law in NSW provides you legal access to schools to instruct children in the tenets and beliefs of your religion – when presenting this to parents, you always choose to phrase things in ways which we assert are intended to conceal your plain motives and the simple meaning of your program.  To answer the question, “are (Christians) being dodgy?  The answer is “yes”, because you are choosing to speak in terms that make your program seem like something it is not:  “holistic”, “ethical”, “moral”, “nurturing” and above all “inquiry” based.  You use terms like “help children explore the gospel for meaning”, when in fact your program is “catechetical”.

Context in this situation is everything – and what is going on in NSW, as it was going on in Victoria, is that Zac Veron, and YouthWorks seek to hijack the education system of NSW to run a youth ministry inside of a period of time when children are compelled by law to be present in the school.  They then carefully manipulate their “pitch” to the captive audience, knowingly avoiding the plain theological implications of their instruction to make catechetical instruction seem like some kind of inquiry based learning that is consistent with what parents expect inside a state primary school.

This is why it is easy to spot the difference between Zac Veron says in his defense of SRE in response to FIRIS, and what Zac Veron says to parents who ask “so what is SRE”.
statement compareRev. Veron, nothing is stopping you from being forthright and direct with parents, and from the words you’ve written in your essay, it is plain that there is language that we can both agree on to describe your agenda.  Now all you have to do is use those words when speaking to parents about what they are signing up for.

It is a simple matter to speak plainly and in clear language.  See, we think that the entire reason why you demand legislation to be in our schools in the first place is because you are a missionary organisation and you are seeking out converts among other people’s children.  That is why SRE instructors describe your program as a “mission field” to be taken advantage of.

If you really only intend to educate children whose families choose for them to take SRE, why not be honest with parents?

Letter From Sandy Grant demanding to know what authority anyone has to regulate SRE!

Now we get to watch what it looks like when an Anglican Priest starts asking on what authority the Department of Education gets to regulate what goes on its schools:  Read it and weep.   Meet Sandy Grant – who controls part of the Anglican SRE franchise. aasandy


Download (PDF, 103KB)

UJEB routed in Caulfield: sign of the end times

Here we have an amazing announcement, UJEB, the sister group to ACCESS Ministries has been moved out of the school day, along with all SRI providers.  The reason:  overwhelming disinterest among parents in sending their kids to SRI … aoss


Download (PDF, 314KB)

Christian Schools head, O’Doherty says Sydney Evangelicals wrong on Sex Book!

The head of Christian Schools Australia has attacked the Anglican Church and the former Archbishop of Sydney saying the church has lost its ability to speak to women in this generation.


CEO of Christian Schools Australia Stephen O’Doherty’s comments come in the wake of disturbing allegations about sex education curricula available in schools.

Read the whole thing here.


Read the Carson Report on Sydney Evangelical Sex Teaching

We are pleased to present the entire report done by Deanne Carson, on the details of how the CEP publication “Teen Sex by the Book” contravenes Department of Education and Communities (DEC) guidelines.

Deanne is a leading Australian Sex Education expert..  The entire report can be downloaded here for free and media contacts are welcome:

Deanne Carson
M 0410613040

Download (PDF, 1.71MB)

FIRIS flunks Dr. Sonia Sharp in leadership

Dr. Sonia Sharp

Dr. Sonia Sharp

Over the last 2 years, the parents at FIRIS, along with respected academics and legal scholars have appealed to Dr. Sonia Sharp to listen to us.  Today, her “leadership” was the subject of public scrutiny related to a horrific series of events in the UK, and our experience motivates us to give Dr. Sharp gets an F in leadership, and to endorse the call put out by opposition Leader Daniel Andrews who is looking for answers about how the Office of Student Wellbeing is managed.

Our direct experience attempting to get Dr. Sharp to help us in the matter of how our children are treated because of the SRI policy, is the opposite of what we expected from her office, and is completely consistent with the actions of a bureaucracy that places politics above the interests of children and families.  The office which she oversees is staffed by good people who have suffered badly under what seems to us like a Potemkin Village that appears to be guided by concern for party politics, and not children or education. 

A typical email exchange with Dr. Sonia Sharp reads as follows:


sharpIf Dr. Sharp has come to Australia, to provide leadership to the Department of Education, and to guide them in not hiding from political problems, you won’t find evidence of it in how she has responded to FIRIS.

Our view is that the leadership, and the most senior person charged with the welfare and protection, the nourishment, the advancement, the education of our kids, has failed miserably at dealing with matters FIRIS has brought to her office, and to watch the Minister roll back the hardly satisfactory reforms, is completely unacceptable to us.

This is an example where leadership was called for, and which has been completely lacking.

The situation was on full display last week when an angry group of so called “Christian Leaders” rounded up the Minister of Education in a private gathering inside Parliament house, to hear assurances that the Minister did not agree with his staff and that they had “over-reached” and that he was directing them to contact school principals and ask them to explain themselves.

What this amounts to, while of a different order of magnitude of the events recounted in the issue of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, is of the same type of behavior, a prioritisation of politics, that puts the interests of factional interest groups over the children in our schools.  The DEECD does not need to account to “Christian Leaders” as to why there should not be “Ministry in Schools” – and all it needs to do is tell them that it is not in the business of negotiating with religious groups on how to run its schools.

If Dr. Sonia Sharp was or is going to offer any “leadership” in this matter, her chance has long since passed.  The conduct of the Department has been to deny, stonewall and then, when fronted by the Australian Christian Lobby, to “roll back” the meager changes that clarified this issue for parents.

Richard Bolt - Secretary of DEECD

Richard Bolt – Secretary of DEECD

Contrary to Richard Bolt’s claims today in the media, his Deputy Dr. Sonia Sharp, has not acted in response to FIRIS with “maximum commitment, professionalism and focus”.  She has stonewalled, abetted and avoided, dealing with a policy which does in fact need leaders who can bring clarity and resolve to dealing with controversy.

Last week, parents from FIRIS were asked by Richard Bolt, who is Dr. Sharp’s boss, to please stop publicly discussing the individual schools who have discontinued SRI, because it is causing political trouble.

Needless to say, FIRIS is not about to be silent, and the appearance of concern is not the same as leadership.

FIRIS can be contacted for media interviews, and to document the long and tortuous failings of the Department of Education in handling parent complaints in this matter.

Bible Society takes Nile’s #ReclaimOurRainbow to Primary Schools

While Jesus spoke at length about equality and social justice, and his followers were inspired to create systems of human governance based on these principles, it is with some sadness that we announce that the “war on rainbows” or as Fred Nile says #ReclaimOurRainbow, is coming to a primary school near you courtesy of “The Bible Society”.

The Bible Society publishes bibles given out by ACCESS Ministry in schools.  The Bible is called the “Big Rescue” and this week it was revamped to get rid of its “Simpsons” look, and was given a new look along the lines of Walt Disney, the important thing about this bible is the pictures which are chosen to call out the important parts of the bible :


That’s right folks … Nile got the Bible Society to make sure Aussie kids know that in addition to having Red Pandas, Cassowaries, Kookaburras, Kangaroos and Scarlet Macaws on the Ark, and itseems to have made the Dove of Peace into the Cockatoo of Peace, Nile’s point that the Rainbow is “God’s Sign” has been singled out for distribution in primary schools though SRI teachers.

After all, as Nile says, they are “taking back what is theirs”:


So this is what Christianity has been up to lately, bringing a copyright infringement action against gays.

Which only goes to show that there is no cause too hopeless to tackle when you’ve got God on your side.

It is sad then that the only thing Aussie kids are going to learn about the #Bible is that it too was published by Disney.

But unlike Disney, there are no Fairies.

You’d be hard pressed to discover that Jesus cared about the poor and dispossessed if you listen to the agenda of Christ’s advocates, especially the ones who run for office in his name.


If you have to affirm the Nicene Creed to get the job, its not a “secular” system.


I’m inclined to see Audrey Statham as a bright spot in the intellectual landscape of Australian secular policy thinking.  She’s got a sharp mind and has written some insightful pieces, but her most recent contribution on the Chaplaincy issue seems to equivocate about what is really going on.

First, her scholarship misses an important point, namely that “Chaplains” have been operating in schools much longer than they have been funded by the Commonwealth.  I’m sure she knows this, but her essay seems to discuss this situation as one arising with the advent of funding in 2006.  That’s wrong.  The Department of Education has contracts going back much farther than this with church organisations to partner around pastoral care.

What changed in 2006 was that this became politicised by becoming a funding programme supported not by agreements between church groups and the various departments of Education, but between the Federal Government.  When it became a federal funding programme, it automatically became subject to the rules of how money can be spent.

Stratham goes on to discuss her ideas about “Australian Secularism”, but she simply refuses to discuss what is actually happening in the transaction in question, or apply her logic to that transaction.

Specifically, she says:

From the standpoint of lived experience in Australian society, Australian secularism includes as its most fundamental and precious value the freedom of citizens to be non-religious or religious, and the freedom to co-exist and engage democratically with others who have very different worldviews from one’s own.

Recovering the understanding of “secular” as an inclusive term is vital for creating an environment that is not exclusionary of those who have religious faith or those who don’t – but, rather, as an environment that encourages the participation of diverse perspectives.

Okay, lets go with that, and look at how the Government wants to spend the money.  Specifically what they propose to do is to only give money to groups who hire people who will affirm specific religious beliefs.

Is that OK?

No.  No one is suggesting that the people being served have a reason to need “religious services” (saying of last rights, administering sacraments, hearing of confession, etc … ), yet no one will clarify why the contracting should only be routed though groups hiring on confessional grounds.

Stratham seems to agree with this point because she says:

 A school chaplaincy program that excludes funding for welfare officers on the grounds that they are non-religious does not count as “secular”. Such a “non-secular” scheme fosters undemocratic, closed-minded attitudes and painful antagonisms between people with very different worldviews within Australian society.

But this is EXACTLY what is going on with the current system.  The Liberal Government wants to only give money to people who will affirm their belief in religious creeds, by only giving contracts to groups that hire on confessional grounds.

The Government is explicit saying that they only want to create funding contracts with groups that meet a religious test – and in so doing they wish to make rules that defy the expectations other citizens have about how their government should function.  They want “special rules” that exclude others.

Stratham aslo says:

By the same token, the implementation in state schools of a school chaplaincy program that is “secular” – in the sense of being open towards funding either a religious chaplain or a non-religious counsellor – is crucial for promoting democratic attitudes of openness towards difference on the part of both non-religious and religious students, and in Australia as a whole.

I would argue that the schools already do “promote democratic attitudes of openness towards difference on the part of both non-religious and religious students” but that they do this by refusing to hire or fire on religious grounds, and they also ask people to limit institutional behavior and activity in the schools to “secular” activity.  There is no proposal on the table to limit a Christian from taking a job, the only proposal on the table is to prohibit a non Christian from getting the job, by only contracting with groups chosen for their “religious hiring practices”.

The “chaplain programme” should be seen as a system that was politicized by religious groups, by extending what was a voluntary partnership into a paid, ongoing, exclusive contract that was instantly made into part of a political agenda.  This is what undermines “Australian Secularism”.

The agenda here is not mysterious at all, and the cause of the problem is not on the side of those who want to end “confessional hiring” for welfare workers in schools, it is entirely on the side of a politically active religious faction who is completely disingenuous about their motives and their agenda, if these groups want to take money from the Commonwealth they should not be expected to be exempt from the standards we expect as citizens to not be discriminated against by our government’s actions.

That is exactly what is going on here and why it should stop.

Stratham ends with a plea:

Social conditions necessary for exercising democratic freedoms don’t just materialise out of thin air; they need to be created. If non-religious and religious Australians are to collaborate together in fostering social conditions that can reinvigorate a democratic way of life, then the Australian lived experience of secularism needs to be cherished.

The issue here is that the “basis” on which “religious and non-religious” people can collaborate is being upset here by imposing a religious test for employment where there is no reason to have one.  The “secular” basis of democracy is one where religion does not form part of the state’s rule making or funding process.  The only threat to our “way of life” here is being waged by group seeking to make religion a condition of employment, the solution is to make religion a non issue by hiring on criteria that do not involve affirming specific religious creeds – the advocates of Chaplains in schools refuse to acknowledge that this is what they mean.



Scott Ryan’s bible is bigger than average