EDUCATION Minister Bronwyn Pike has ducked a potential backlash from the powerful Christian lobby by rejecting a proposal to allow humanism to be taught in primary schools during time allocated for religious education.
The Humanist Society of Victoria, which wants to teach an ethics-based curriculum, is planning a legal challenge, saying that the current system indirectly discriminates against non-religious children, causing ”hurt, humiliation and pain and suffering” to them when they opt out of religious education classes.
Children in two-thirds of Victorian state primary schools are taught Christian scripture by volunteers, even though the Education Act says state schools must be secular and ”not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect”.Advertisement: Story continues below
Parents must sign forms if they want their children to be excluded from ”special religious instruction” classes, 96 per cent of which teach Christianity, with the remaining 4 per cent covered by the Jewish, Buddhist and Baha’i faiths.
Children who do not attend these sessions are not allowed to be taught anything their classmates might miss out on during this time, so they are often put in another room where they read or play on computers.
The Education Act has a special exemption from its secular roots to allow religious education.
But Ms Pike skewered an attempt last year by the Humanist Society of Victoria to have its ”humanist applied ethics” curriculum approved for teaching during the religion period. The course, designed to be taught from prep to year 6, covered subjects such as the art of living, the environment, philosophy, science and world citizenship.
Ms Pike declared that humanism’s ”world-view philosophy [sic] cannot be defined as a religion”, and that the Humanist Society was ”not registered as a religious organisation” and therefore could not ”provide instruction in government schools”. There is, however, no official registration of religions in Australia.
The man responsible for accrediting non-Christian religious teachers, RMIT professor Desmond Cahill, head of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, said, ”We’d consider humanism as a religion since it has an ethical standpoint.”
Ms Pike refused to answer The Sunday Age’s questions about whether she had been targeted by the Christian lobby.
The Greens candidate in Ms Pike’s threatened seat of Melbourne, Brian Walters, told The Sunday Age governments should not use their power to ”privilege or promote any one religion or non-religion in our schools” and said children should not be segregated on the basis of faith.
The Humanist Society of Victoria has obtained legal advice that children who are excluded from scripture classes are being indirectly discriminated against.
Religious education arguably breaches equal opportunity law, the advice says, and causes ”hurt, humiliation and pain and suffering” to children who opt out as they are ”isolated from the rest of the class … with little to do”.
It suggests aggrieved parents take action in the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and possibly VCAT.
Humanist Society of Victoria president Stephen Stuart said the society was collecting testimony from parents in an attempt to mount a ”convincing class action with hundreds of names”.
Melbourne mother Dina Cragie, who is Jewish, lobbied for Judaism to be offered at her children’s Hawthorn East school, but they were plucked from maths classes to attend. ”I’m not happy with it; it’s a secular school, and the fact that so much time is spent on religious education is baffling to me – and to have to choose between maths and religion offends me,” Ms Cragie said.
”Ultimately you should teach all religions or none.”
Prime Minister Julia Gillard says she has no intention of pretending to believe in God to attract religiously-inclined voters.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd was a regular at Canberra church services and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is known as a devout Catholic.
In contrast, Ms Gillard says that while she greatly respects other people’s religious views, she does not believe in God.
Ms Gillard has been quizzed on personal topics including her attitude to religion and her relationship with her partner during interviews this morning.
She says does not go through religious rituals for the sake of appearance.
“I am not going to pretend a faith I don’t feel,” she said.
“I am what I am and people will judge that.
“For people of faith, I think the greatest compliment I could pay to them is to respect their genuinely held beliefs and not to engage in some pretence about mine.”
“I grew up in the Christian church, a Christian background. I won prizes for catechism, for being able to remember Bible verses. I am steeped in that tradition, but I’ve made decisions in my adult life about my own views.
“I’m worried about the national interest. About doing the right thing by Australians. And I’ll allow people to form their own views about whatever is going to drive their views.
“What I can say to Australians broadly of course is I believe you can be a person of strong principle and values from a variety of perspectives.”
Meanwhile Ms Gillard has rejected claims that she is soft on Israel.
Former ambassador to Israel Ross Burns made the accusation in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Fairfax press reported.
Ms Gillard’s partner Tim Mathieson works for prominent pro-Israel lobbyist Albert Dadon’s real estate company Urbertas Group.
“I’ve seen that letter to the newspapers, that’s not right,” Ms Gillard said today.
“I’ve made up my own views about Israel and made them known publicly well before there was any suggestion that my partner would work in a property group associated with Mr Dadon.”