This is a guest posting by Julie Cowe, an American currently living in Melbourne, Australia. She recently emigrated there from Scotland. She’s been blogging for five years and became active in secular issues after learning there are organizations trying get God into American public schools.
Unlike America, Australia has no separation of church and state. Our version of America’s First Amendment is called section 116 which states:
Commonwealth not to legislate in respect of religion:
The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.
This has allowed room for the religious right to get God into the public schools.
The Board of Education has stipulated that schools are required to provide one hour a week to religious education where a school chaplain is available. Not just in religiously affiliated schools, but all government schools. It’s called the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP), where people are trained up and placed as Chaplains in our public schools. To put it simply: There are evangelists in the schools, preaching to our children. They get an hour every week to spread the word of God to our kids. This program started in 2007 with promised funding of $165 million over three years to the Chaplaincy program. In November last year, the current government allotted a further $42.8 million to extend the program for another two years. The role of the Chaplain is to offer education in values and ethics and it seems the government feels the Bible is the greatest source for this education. The schools may also use the chaplains as mentors, playground staff, and as a general useful body and extra set of eyes.
A person is not required to hold any particular qualifications to be a Christian Religious Education (CRE) teacher. They don’t need child education qualifications or counseling qualifications — they don’t even require a high school diploma. Chaplains need a Bachelors degree in Theology/Ministry Education or Counseling. The Rationalist Society of Australia questioned the Minister for Education, Julia Gillard, about the Effectivness of Chaplaincy report (PDF) done last year which stated:
… of the 1031 chaplains to respond, at best 132 or 12%, had qualifications at diploma level or above and almost half of those qualifications were in chaplaincy, pastoral care and theology. With only 2.5% qualified in counseling or psychology. Yet the report states that chaplains have been called in to help with children’s anger issues, grief and loss, bullying, peer pressure and self esteem as well as self harm and suicide. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the more devout the chaplain, the less likely they are to refer students to professional services with dire consequences.
The UK, which is a Christian country, has a secular religious education which covers seven major religions and is taught from a cultural perspective. It encourages community, understanding of diversity, and an appreciation of the variety of cultures within the country. Australia is not a Christian country, yet it has Christian, Catholic and Jewish religious education in its public state schools which includes prayer and Bible study. You cannot mix the classes; you only get to choose one. (Here in Victoria there is no accepted module for Islam, Hindu, Sikhism, Baha’i or Buddhism so there are no chaplains available.) Most schools get the Protestant curriculum by default and if parents want the other modules for their kids, the parents have to request it from the principal, provided there is a trained Chaplain available.
Parents are able to opt-out their children from the religious education class, however that hour is spent idle. My children are separated for this hour from the rest of the class and given computer time. My 5th grader and her fellow opt-out students are unsupervised for that hour. Some parents have reported their child sat for the hour in empty hallways, alone.
The Australian states all have different ways of approaching the religious education problem. Victoria is trying to get a Humanist curriculum approved, but as is expected, they’re coming up against the typical prejudice. Access Ministries Research director Jenny Stokes said, “If you go there [allowing a Humanist curriculum], where do you stop? What about Witchcraft or Satanism? If you accredit Humanism, then those things would have an equal claim to be taught in schools.” Most of the states have MPs denying that there is evangelizing in schools, despite the obvious proof seen in the recruitment videos by Access Ministries, an organization which trains Chaplains.
I’ve talked with Hugh Wilson of the ASL about their opinions on religious education; “ASL arose, by accident, formed by concerned parents to tackle the increasingly prevalent evangelical religiosity of Queensland state schools. Following close on the heels of school chaplains came hordes of evangelical church volunteers and their Hillsong Church-designed-and-implemented gendered programs. More recently, Christian ‘mentors’ have been allowed to work alone with ‘at risk’ students in state schools. These have included Baptists and other believers, organized by the Baptist centered organization, World Vision. Almost as a mild side distraction, the Queensland Studies Authority, the peak body that decides just what school students learn, declines to ‘design out’ the allowed and practiced teaching of Creationism and Intelligent Design in Queensland state school science classes, or any other class an individual classroom teacher might feel inclined to inject a little ‘religion’ into. All of this has been accepted without question by successive education ministers and premiers, all of whom now promote Queensland as ‘the Smart State’.”
Even more troubling is what happens when the girls go to high school and begin the Shine Program. Shine says it promotes self esteem, confidence and self worth, however one parent (wishing to remain anonymous) claims a different experience (DOC): “…over the next few weeks it became clear that the girls were being urged to adopt the kind of passive/conservative Christian stereotypes that we are all long familiar with: they were being groomed for domestic and spiritual bliss as demure brides of Man and Christ.”
Recently, Ron Williams, a Queensland parent, has embarked upon a course of action which will see a writ being served in the High Court in the not too distant future as to the legality of federal funds being used to support the NSCP. This is an important move, yet the local newspaper, the Courier Mail (Sunday edition), hasn’t printed this online — though they did publish it and you can see a scan of the article here. Williams has taken previous actions against his daughter’s school when a class that was supposed to discuss animals and the noises they made used the Ark story as reference material. Yet Queensland Education states there were “no references to ‘God’ or the biblical story of Noah’s Ark made in Kathleen’s classroom.”
My experience at our daughter’s school initially assured me that the CRE class was “Just some Bible stories with a moral lean. Nothing to worry about.” and had allowed my daughter to be a part of the class. One day she came home and asked me “Did God make the Big Bang?” because that was what her Chaplain had told her. I filed a complaint because cosmology and Creationism do not mix and it was unacceptable for the Chaplain to make such a claim. The outcome was that my daughter had “taken the comments out of context.”
This year I made several phone calls to try and acquire the syllabus for the CRE classes, as I now have both daughters in school and sincerely wanted to know what was involved in the classes. The school refused to supply the curriculum, advising me to contact Access Ministries because they are a separate entity from the schools. Access Ministries gave me a suspicious interrogation — apparently no other parent has ever asked for a copy of what’s being taught to their kids. What I received was what you’d expect in a Sunday school class. The age 5-6 classes get Creationism (unit 4) before they ever get a science class. The 10-11-year-olds get told how much God loves them and wants a personal relationship with each them, and also what to do when they’ve disappointed God by sinning.
This is not religious education. This is the indoctrination of children into the Christian faith with full support of the Australian government, funded by taxpayers. Concerned Australians need to speak to their principals and raise questions with the board of education and challenge their MPs. Challenge all your MPs, not just your affiliated party. Get your MPs to question your Ministers for Education. I’ve found that an email gets a response. As more parents raise concerns, it will provide a stronger argument to push for reform of the Education Act. Find what groups are active in your state and get motivated to find a solution.