Australia is hailed as a model of religious freedom and tolerance. But how far does our tolerance extend, and does it apply equally? The Department of Education in Queensland has been reviewing Religious Instruction in Queensland state schools. And there are now questions about whether the Department is tolerant of students talking about their faith to other students.
In Queensland, a referendum more than 100 years ago cemented the right for Religious Instruction to be taught in schools each week. It is taught by volunteers on behalf of denominations or recognised religious bodies. The lessons are not compulsory, they are not part of the official curriculum and parents elect the faith-group their children attend. They can also opt out.
As with any other activity that is done in a school, Religious Instruction needs to be done in a way that conforms with the over-arching policies of the school – under policies like “safe and supportive environment”, “child protection”, “workplace health and safety”.
Principals are responsible for making sure these policies are being followed, whether it be in before and after school care, the outside band program or Religious Instruction. This too should be unexceptional. Except that for some people, religion has no place in a state school, even when it is non-compulsory.
The Department’s concerns
And in three successive reviews, the Qld Department seems to be struggling to find a fair balance that protects the exercise of religion. The tone is passive, but the meaning and content seem clear enough – it is critical and jaundiced.
The Qld Department of Education is concerned that these lessons include the terms black and white. This is because – “this could draw unwanted attention to students within the class or school”. My comment? Yes – it could tell them about the significance of reconciliation – something Australia needs. There’s no place for this type of revisionist approach.
Then there’s the story of Daniel, who refused to eat food sacrificed to other gods, as an act of obedience to the Hebrew God Yahweh. He’s an outstanding example of principled leadership. The department says this might contravene the healthy eating guidelines because he only ate vegetables. See what I mean – it is as though they are going out of their way to find fault.
The question for me is, has the Department of Education overstepped the mark?