Disclaimer: This article is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect
Shush: Don't mention the 'J' word
Across the nation, there appears to be increasing concern about the place of religious education in schools both as General Religious Education (GRE) – teaching about the world’s major religions, what people believe and how that belief affects their lives – and Special Religious Education (SRE) commonly known as “scripture” in NSW.
In the deep north
An incident occurred in Queensland July 2017, where a report on the materials used by God Space (a provider of religious instruction in Queensland) recommendedthat students should not be encouraged to evangelise to other students at the school. In response the Department wrote, The department expects schools to take appropriate action if aware that students participating in RI are evangelising to students who do not participate in their RI classes, given this could adversely affect the school’s ability to provide a safe, supportive and inclusive environment for all students.
Christian groups were quick to seize on this statement as an overreaction to the comments in the report and to point out that it could be taken to be discriminatory against students restricting their human rights of freedom of speech and of religion. They also pointed out that taken to an extreme students could not talk about Jesus in the playground or even give Christmas cards. The issue was further inflamed by a reported incident of a child in a primary school being reprimanded for talking about Jesus in the playground.
The Education Minister responded with a statement that there was no change to religious instruction policy and no one was telling a child what he/she could or could not say in the playground.
While this is a sobering response from the Minister, one questions how this matter became such an issue. It would seem a reasonable statement that students should not be encouraged to evangelise to other students at the school except that it is a fundamental Christian belief that Christians are to do God’s work by making Christ known. So by making this statement the review overstepped its brief by commenting on the content of the lessons that contained a belief, they themselves might not have held. Then some department officers used this statement to further their concerns that students are promoting their religion with other students. In this they showed prejudice and completely overstepped the mark by indicating that such behaviour could provide an unsafe environment for other students and that principals were to take action. They seemed to have no understanding of the human rights implications of freedom of religion and speech. If some students used their religious or secular beliefs to harass another student then principals already have anti-bullying processes to deal with this. Banning religious talk, or any talk, and offering sanctions is not only over the top but demonstrates the increasing influence in our society that anti-Christian groups and beliefs are having that wish to stop any religious instruction or talk in schools. They need to be countered.
The broader issues
This incident raises a number of concerns for Christian teachers. NSW is not Queensland and the legislation, policy and the implementation procedures for SRE are very different in NSW. These matters are extensively discussed in the paperReligious Education in NSW public schools: A less certain future which is available under the heading Religious education on the TCF website at http://www.tcfofnsw.org.au/articles.htm#SRE. Anyone with an interest in GRE and/or SRE is encouraged to read this paper. A recent review of SRE and Special Ethics classes in NSW resulted in the government and department announcing that there would be no change in NSW.
However, despite assurances, there continues to be pressure on religion being taught in schools and SRE in particular. These pressures come from:
- the lack of SRE teachers to take available classes causing administrative difficulties in schools, especially secondary schools
- an increasing number of parents who opt for “no religion” as an SRE preference leaving a large group of students for schools to provide for
- several anti-religion in schools groups that continually highlight their ideological position and attract media attention
- media, especially the Sydney Morning Herald, whose sub-editors continue to give priority to anti-religious news in an unbalanced and prejudicial way
- schools which do not apply correctly the enrolment procedures and raise other administrative barriers
- increasing regulation about the authorisation and training of teachers, the publication of curricula and administrative arrangements
- the increasing authority given to individual school principals and their lack of understanding of SRE policy
A Christian response
As the 2016 census indicated, there is a greater proportion of Australians selecting “no religion” as their preferred option, although the rate of decline has slowed as nominalism is shed from such statistics. Nonetheless, Christians are heading to be a minority in Australia, if they are not already in terms of practice as measured by church attendance. The pressures for changes in religious instruction in schools will only get greater. Do Christians simply submit to the government of the day (1Peter 2:13, Rom 13:1) or are they to take action. What did Christ mean when he said his followers were to be the light and salt of the earth (Matt 5:13). Can Christians preserve what is good in society by not participating and submitting to government?
Christians do not live in a first century autocracy but a western democracy. If Christians are to influence government for the good of all, they have the right to be heard (salt), and a duty to God to reflect (light) his character in the world, even when a minority. Too often compliant Christians have been inactive and inadvertently facilitated bad law to be enacted. It is not a question about breaking the law of the land (although this is often how many bad laws are changed), but of influencing it by being involved in decision-making including using all the democratic processes available and by influencing the media.
For those who value the teaching of religion in schools, they can no longer rely on legislation that came from a time when Christianity dominated parliament. They need to be a voice in local schools, churches and communities so that the Christian minority is respected and not discriminated against by having secular policies imposed that contradict their beliefs. Perhaps religion in schools is not the only current legislative area facing controversy for the Christian minority. This is the future and Christians need to get used to it.