As has been reported on several sites — the NSW Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, has reversed the Department of Education and Communities’ (DEC) ban on the two books which were being used in SRE. In the letter written to Glenn Davies, the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, announcing the lifting of the ban, Mr. Piccoli expressed “regret that there was no consultation by the DEC with the Anglican Church prior to the memorandum being issued“. The official reason provided for occurrence of the ban seems to be that DEC were responding to advice that “there was a potential risk to students in the delivery of this material, if not taught sensitively and in an age appropriate manner“.
Whilst the confusion regarding this particular misunderstanding has been cleared up between the Archbishop and the DEC, it may seem as the storm has passed — and it has, for now. However, this incident has raised several issues that Christians need to be mindfully aware of and cannot, casually, ignore. Specifically, it has reminded us of the great privilege we have in being able to operate classes such as SRE, but, conversely, it has equally reminded us that there are groups, vocal groups, which desire the utter eradication of the religious voice within the public sphere.
The Redaction or Removal of SRE in Schools: the intended endgame
One of the groups which undoubtedly spooked the DEC into issuing the knee-jerk directive (and all evidence points to that being the actual case) was the organisation which quizzically goes by the name of Fairness of Religions in Schools (FIRIS). I say quizzical, because much of their established actions betray neither a sense of wanting fairness for religion to operate within schools nor wanting fairness of religions to operate according to their held beliefs. Whilst FIRIS have claimed that they are only seeking transparency in SRE and meaningful engagement on the issue, they have shown flagrant disregard to their opponents on the debate, and have repeatedly sought to chastise and denounce both groups and individuals in order to advance their own agenda of the secularisation, if not the outright removal, of SRE.
If FIRIS, as it has claimed, was merely after a change of the opt-in process of SRE in NSW so that I) parents were further educated on what topics are covered in the class; and II) that children were not automatically opted-in against their parents wishes — then I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. After all, I think it is crucial for the children in SRE to want to be there — with parental consent. Yet, FIRIS have demonstrated time and time again, in Facebook posts, that this isn’t their intended endgame, as the exuberance concerning the reduction of SRI classes being offered in Victoria clearly demonstrates:
(For note, Rob Ward has stated to John Dickson that he was misrepresented.)
Instead, I think it’s clear from the actions of FIRIS, that they are after the removal of what they deem to be ‘fundamentalist’ Christianity. As in, any teaching which takes the Bible literally on any topic they consider unsavoury or offensive, including, but not limited to, homosexuality, abstinence, sin, existence of hell and divorce. In other words, FIRIS wants the ability to dictate what Christian topics are taught in Christian classes intended for Christians — so that these topics are either removed, or become, what they deem, “moderate”. (Of course, I would argue that moderate Christians in this sense are not necessarily Christian at all; but that’s a different topic for a different day.)
However, it isn’t the endgame which is the most disturbing, though. It’s the method and manner in how FIRIS and other groups have decided to operate. For an organisation which claims to be after a healthy and peaceful dialogue on the matter of SRE, they have employed methods such as ‘naming and shaming’ and misrepresenting individuals who disagree with them. Examples include a (now-removed) racist article targeting Patricia Weerakoon (the sexologist and author of Teen Sex by the Book) which you can find here and a constant stream of Facebook posts like the below (some of which have since been deleted):
Yet FIRIS are hardly alone in their desire for the removal of SRE, or the content therein. Indeed, other vocal groups including Sydney Atheists, Atheist Foundation of Australia and The Greens, amongst others, have expressed that there is no room for Christian teachings in schools as these contravene their own personally-held beliefs. Interestingly, both FIRIS and John Kaye (The Green’s Education Spokesman) have decried the reversal of the SRE ban, stating that it has resulted in the rights of the parents being put last. However, if SRE is a voluntary opt-in (which it is), then wouldn’t the removal of the materials by the urging of these advocacy groups be equally an infringement on the rights of the parents who do actually want their children taught such things? Food for thought.
Proselytising that Others May Not Proselytise
These groups have also requested that there should be an immediate curtailment of Christians proselytising their religious beliefs, whether in SRE or otherwise. The issue with this becomes clearer if we actually examine what the word, proselytise, actually means:
- convert or attempt to convert (someone) from one religion, belief, or opinion to another.
- advocate or promote (a belief or course of action).
Thus, to effectively demand Christians to cease proselytising is a demand that Christians cease evangelising, or rather speaking about Christianity in a positive manner, as this may seem as advocating or promoting, to anyone else. Already, as of late-March, Christians involved in voluntary, non-SRE, Christian groups in public schools have been informed by DEC that they are to “not engage in attempts to proselytise or convert non-adherents of their religion to their faith in the course of school authorised activities”. Evidently, this places Christian students in a particularly thorny situation — as it becomes hard for schools to police what actually constitutes as proselytism. If merely telling a friend how much fun or fulfillment that they’ve had at church or in their relationship God is prohibited, it effectively limits not only the speech of what that student can say, but it curbs their freedom to demonstrate their religious beliefs (a right bestowed by international law of which Australia is signatory to).
Further, by the groups lobbying the government about curbing the ability for Christians to proselytise, they are in fact, logically, proselytising! What they’re doing is promoting their own opinion in the hopes that it will become instated. They’re proselytising for us not to have the right to proselytise! This is deeply revealing and demonstrates that these groups are effectually saying that worldviews which are formed by, and rooted in, Christian, or religious beliefs in general, are intrinsically worth less in our society than the worldviews they deem as correct and should, consequently, not be involved in the public sphere (Indeed, a sentiment vocalised by FIRIS in an interview held with the SBS!). In actuality, they are stressing that such religious beliefs should be suppressed. A point illustrated well by Natasha Moore in her article ‘Silence isn’t golden when it comes to free speech‘.
Where to From Here?
That Christianity would be edged from the public sphere should not catch us by surprise. It is a sign of the times that much of the scriptural truths we adhere to are becoming increasingly contrary to the values held by the vocal elements of society around us. We need to remember that these groups are contesting the idea that Christian values are being taught in classes specifically allotted for that purpose. As such, it is obvious that what they’re actually taking target at is the Christian beliefs themselves. If anything, SRE, itself, is just a specific battlefield on which these conflicting views are battling it out for dominance.
Yet, despite the reversal of the ban on Jensen’s and Dickson’s books in SRE, the fact that the ban was instigated in the first place demonstrates that contrary to the legal protection that SRE has under section 32 (s32) of the Education Act 1990, the department can intervene on its own whims and at the behest of groups which desire the removal of Christian content. That DEC issued a directive which pulled legally-protected materials which were, under s32, “authorised by the religious body to which the member of the clergy or other religious teacher belongs“ demonstrates, arguably, that the department acted “completely outside [its] lawful authority“.
If anything, recent events have shown us that while we may have won the skirmish, it is increasingly unlikely that the result of the war will be on our side. I’m not saying that this war will be decided during the tenure of the Baird Government. In fact, I think that is highly improbable to happen again in the immediate future. Nevertheless, it will happen again — and whilst this past dispute was merely testing the waters — it is likely that the next challenge is going to be protracted. If anything, the DEC book-banning and subsequent reversal is a much needed reminder. Particularly, we need to remember that Christianity has long held a privileged position in Australian society ever since the nation’s conception, and it is something we can ill-afford to take for granted. Rather, we need to use the inroads that we legitimately have before they are cut off. Likewise, we need to ensure that we do all things we can to adhere to the legislative requirements that have been imposed as to make sure we’re not booted out of these avenues even sooner; provided, obviously, that adherence does not run contrary to scripture.
Whilst this may sound like a defeatist attitude, it is not — Christians are called to look at the times and act accordingly. We’ve been told time and time again in scripture that acceptance by the world is not the normative when we profess and follow Christ (Mark 13:13; John 15:18; 2 Timothy 3:12). Instead, we are to communicate well with those who we find opposing us and our values so as to represent, and bring glory to, Jesus (1 Peter 3:16; Romans 12:17-21; 1 Peter 2:12,4:4). I believe John Dickson summed up this idea well in that we are to “lose well”. This does not mean, however, that we are not to stand up for what we believe in — but rather, we do so on the basis of both love and firmness.
For Christians living in NSW, I certainly recommend that if you genuinely desire for the continuance of mainstream Christian teachings being taught in SRE; that you show support by heading over to the Youthworks’ ‘SRE Under Review’ page and filling out a statement of support. After all, SRE is a privilege for Christians to have Christian children taught what Christianity is all about.
- EDUCATION ACT 1990 – SECT 32
- As mentioned by Neil Foster, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Newcastle in “Update – Schools, Scripture, Banning of Books and Sexual Orthodoxy“