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Our secular society is being eroded – one school child at a time

Should children be exposed to religion in school?

In the small print in my Qantas in flight magazine I noticed that Qantas is now raising money for Mission Australia.

Mission Australia runs a number of useful and worthwhile programs for the disadvantaged. But its website makes clear that it is a “Christian community service organisation”, although this is not mentioned by Qantas.

This seems typical of the small but significant inroads that are being made into secularism in Australia. At a time when fewer and fewer Australians profess any religious belief, and those who do are increasingly diverse, a low-level Christianity is becoming established as part of the socially accepted norms of national identity.

The most egregious example is the school chaplains program, which was established under Howard but continued with seeming enthusiasm by the current Labor government. The defence is that state-funded chaplains are not religious proselytisers, but there to provide guidance and help to students. But the term is clearly a religious one, and chaplains are provided by groups such as ACCESS Ministries (Vic), GenR8 Ministries (NSW), Schools Ministry Group (SA) and the Scripture Union (ACT, Queensland, Tasmania).

The High Court recently ruled that this does not breach the provision in the Australian Constitution that: “no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth”. But it clearly privileges Christian, indeed Protestant, affiliation in a school system which is intended to be secular.

The current debate around the Gonski Review of school funding, and Gillard’s response to it, has legitimately concentrated on the shameful competition between Gillard and Abbott to guarantee that well-off schools should become yet better off, which repudiates the spirit of the Report. But private schools not only ensure the perpetuation of class privilege, they deepen the divide between ethnic and religious communities.

Only a very brave politician would today argue that there is a public interest in cutting back on private schools and deliberately growing the state system, and there are good arguments for diversity in education. Whether genuine diversity stems from more and more kids attending schools that do not draw the students from the whole spectrum of an increasingly diverse society is a different question.

The current wisdom is that parents have the right to choose the best schools for their children, which in practice means schools that will perpetuate their particular vision of the world. It would be impossible to suddenly abolish all private schools, but it might not be impractical to require that for some part of their schooling, students should spend time exposed to people of very different beliefs and backgrounds.

Democratic societies constantly balance the needs of the society as a whole against individual rights, more complicated when it is a question of children who are assumed to lack the capacity to make decisions for themselves. In the most egregious cases—such as parents who refuse medical treatment for critically ill children on religious grounds—we accept state intervention.

But in schooling we are far more accepting of the rights of parents, and religious schools are granted certain exemptions from anti-discrimination laws in employment practices while receiving considerable government funding. Increasingly, however, a low level of Christian education is being required in government schools, through what is called “special religious instruction” or “special religious education”.

At least in Victoria, unless parents ask for their children to “opt out”, they will be given a generic Christian education through programs provided by ACCESS Ministries.

You may not be surprised that an atheist like me is shocked by this, but so too are a number of practising Christians who believe in strict separation of state and church.

Gary Bouma, who is both a professor of intercultural relations and an Anglican priest, has written of the impropriety of governments forcing children into particular forms of religious belief.

Germany has recently seen a major political and legal debate about the acceptability of infant male circumcision, and the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute has recently recommended it should be outlawed except in cases of religion or culture.

This poses a genuine problem: if there are health reasons to outlaw a procedure should the state not protect all infants from an operation to which they cannot possibly give consent? I express no views here on circumcision, only doubts as to why religion should be grounds for exemption from protection of infants.

Most Australians believe that religious freedom includes freedom not to believe, and therefore should prevent any imposition of religious beliefs on those who do not share them.

The line is a complex one to maintain: why, for example, does Australia Post produce stamps for Christmas while ignoring all other religious holidays?

But the current battles within the American Republican Party, where religious fundamentalism is supporting extremely sexist and homophobic positions, reminds us that keeping a clear divide between church and state is both important to preserve basic rights.

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