Why is religious instruction still a thing?
THE Bible Belt town of Taylor in the US state of Texas had 22 churches for about 10,000 people when Sarah Patrick was going to primary school there in the 1980s. "A church on every corner," says the Catholic-raised Texan, 43, who now lives in Windsor, in Brisbane's inner north. But while the hymns rang out into Taylor's streets on Sunday, religious teaching never crossed the threshold of its public schools. "In the States, we have a very clear division between church and state."
So it surprised the now-lapsed Catholic when she went to enrol her daughter, Sage, now eight, at inner Brisbane's Windsor State School to find a question on the enrolment form about whether she wanted Sage to receive religious instruction. She recalls asking the school's deputy principal, "Is this a thing here?"
In fact, it's been "a thing" in Queensland schools for more than 100 years, after a crusading Irish Anglican, Reverend David Garland, and his Bible in State Schools League spearheaded a movement to allow time in school hours for RI.
After 20 years of campaigning, a non-compulsory referendum was put and with just over half of enrolled Queenslanders voting, the "yes" vote won. All use of the word secular was removed from the Education Act in 1910. Religion became part of government-run schools by law.
The fight is on to change that. A group called Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools is leading a push to get religious instruction out of school hours, as Victoria did three years ago, leading to a dramatic fall in numbers. Only NSW has a similar system to Queensland and there's calls for change there, too. An e-petition on the Queensland Parliament website which closes tomorrow calls for a parliamentary review of the Act. It has almost 4000 signatures.
The leaders of the religions, overwhelmingly Christian, but also the Islamic, Jewish and Buddhist faiths, are keen to protect the right of believers to walk into schools every week to give young students a dose of the Bible or Koran, Tanakh or Buddhist scriptures. The four faiths have recently formed the Multi-Faiths Religious Instruction Peak Body and hired a public relations firm, Mercer PR, to coordinate its response.
David Baker, 62, the body's co-chair and moderator of the Uniting Church's Queensland synod, says RI helps children see themselves as "part of a greater narrative"; to understand how to accept themselves and others. He says it's not mandatory: parents choose if their child attends RI. "A parent says, 'I want my child to explore life and meaning in the light of this faith'."
But if parents want such questions explored in a religious context, counters Patrick, do it at home. Or send the child to a religious school, or take them to church, or mosque, or temple.
After all, her choice is overruled - she'd like Sage to keep learning the curriculum but that's prohibited for non-RI students. Kevin Bates, the president of the Queensland Teachers' Union, which has long advocated the removal of RI from school hours, says while students doing inter-school sport or music are expected to catch up, non-RI classes are "the only circumstance where there is a requirement not to deliver new content, by department policy". Says Bates: "Religious instruction is an interloper; it … disrupts the normal teaching process."
Sage and other non-RI classmates watch the television program, Behind the News , while RI goes on. "I just assumed," says Patrick, "that the time the kids were getting their religious instruction that the rest of the kids would just go on learning."
At the very least, she says, RI should be outside class time. "I mean, I have to get Sage to school at 7.45 on a Tuesday morning for choir; they don't do it inside of school hours. I think this has to be revisited. I think it needs to be fixed. Because in my opinion, it's broken."
A WIDER WORLD
Cattleticks, Presbuttons, and Lunatics. Oh, how we teased each other about our Catholic, Presbyterian and Lutheran denominations in the bush schoolyard of my youth as we broke off into our camps for religious instruction. No one was other than Christian, and no one sat out RI.
That's almost half a century ago. When I was born, in 1966, 88 per cent of Australians identified as Christian. In the 2016 Census, it was 52 per cent. Now more people have no religion - 30 per cent - than Catholics, the leading Christian church, at 23 per cent. Our increasingly multicultural society means 2.6 per cent list Islam as their religion, 2.4 per cent are Buddhists, and there's a growing number of Hindus and Sikhs.
The changing face of Australia is just one reason for RI to be scrapped, says Alison Courtice, 51, a member of the QPSSS. "We're becoming more culturally diverse, less religious overall, more non-Christian religions," she says.
Her e-petition calling for a review of RI - now in about 750 state schools, most of them primary - suggests replacing it with a curriculum-based study of world religions, taught by teachers, rather than religious volunteers.
Sitting around her kitchen table in Windsor are the other QPSSS organisers; Julia Walker, 52, and Cathy Collins, 44, both from Brisbane's western suburbs. Says Walker: "It would be much better if our kids learn about the people they share society with. You'd probably be less likely to get this polarised rhetoric that 'this lot are extremists and this lot are wonderful'. We're doing our kids a disservice by siloing them."
State schools are meant to be inclusive, says Courtice, but children from non-Christian faiths are often not catered for in RI. (David Baker admits the number of schools where non-Christian RI is offered is "quite small".) This highlights their "otherness", which might already be difficult in the playground, says Courtice.
"These children might look a bit different or dress a bit different," says Courtice. "So, children who might already be marginalised and vulnerable are being excluded in another way."
Adjudicating just how many children do RI would make Solomon cringe. The QPSSS and Multi-Faiths RI Peak Body have offered wildly varying percentages. QPSSS calculates permissions at 35 per cent across all primary schools (including prep, which does not have RI), using enrolment form figures from the Education Department's OneSchool database, accessed under Right to Information. Permissions don't mean participation, the QPSSS points out, because some schools don't always offer the faith of choice. The dominant RI instruction group, the Christian RI Network, says its own data puts the figure at more than 70 per cent "in the schools where it is offered". It says the enrolment form data is unreliable as permissions change and principals keep updates separate to OneSchool. Education Queensland offers no clarification.
Pursuing data - and bureaucrats and politicians - has become a part of the QPSSS women's lives. The campaign began after Walker and Collins met by chance in 2014. They got talking at the Kenmore library; both mothers of boys, both choosing to have their boys kept out of RI.
Walker was incensed when she arrived in the afternoon to pick up a son in Year 4 from Pullenvale State School. Despite not wanting her son to attend RI and department stipulations that a non-RI child should be supervised in a separate area, Walker's son was at the back of the RI classroom, at a desk with a computer, facing the wall. "One, we said 'please don't expose him to it', and two, it was almost punitive."
Collins was "a bit riled up" after her then seven-year-old son, who she'd let go to RI at Kenmore South after he begged her to because he did not want to be separated from his friends, came home from RI, ashen-faced. He told her: "The teacher said that I am like a dirty cloth but if I open my heart to God, then he will make me clean." Says Collins: "Big Mumma bear came out. I said 'You are not dirty, you are my beautiful, precious boy'." (The Christian RI Network chief, Karen Grenning, 58, says such examples are "ancient history"; all instructors know to ensure non-RI children are in separate classrooms and the "dirty cloth" lesson is no longer taught.)
The QPSSS mothers believe faith groups are evangelising, using RI to win children to a dwindling congregation, a role they say is not fitting in state schools.
Fired by their common views, Collins and Walker decided to build a network, creating the QPSSS Facebook group in mid-2014. They held a wine and cheese night to gather more followers and Courtice turned up. "And the angels sang," says Courtice to much laughter.
Their resolve grew with the evidence and findings from the royal commission into institutional child sexual abuse. Says Collins, who was raised Catholic, "For me, the royal commission showed us that religion shouldn't be above questioning; it shouldn't be above the rules for everybody. It shouldn't be above being challenged."
Adds Courtice: "It irks me when the religious instruction providers come out and say RI provides values. RI provides religious doctrine. In terms of values, it's implying that if you don't send your kids to religious instruction, they're not getting values. That really irks me, particularly in view of the royal commission and the values that many religious institutions had in terms of their protection of children and those values absolutely sucked."
They're all atheists. But they squirm at the tag, saying it has become a "weaponised" word. "I'm not doing this because I'm atheist," says Courtice. "(RI) is dividing children in their otherwise very inclusive state school classroom along religious lines … and then wrapping it in a religious privilege blanket so that children whose parents choose for them not to do it are not allowed to do new curriculum work. That's why I'm doing this."
That's what made Belinda Hokins, 38, of Coolangatta, sign the petition, after opting her daughters, Evie, 11, and Mia, 9, out of RI at Currumbin State School. Only 40 per cent of its students do RI. "It's not just a couple of kids being inconvenienced. It's a lot of children that are bored and wasting time."
She was "thrilled to find" the QPSSS trio via Facebook. "We're not an organised group, the people who are opting out, whereas the churches come from quite an organised position."
THE MEANING OF LIFE
Children are seeking answers to the big questions, says Karen Grenning. "Who am I, how did the world start? We provide an opportunity to answer those questions according to the faith tradition of Christianity," she says. "Other people have got other answers to that, including atheists."
Grenning says she was 12 years old when she found her answers in the Bible. She'd been taken to Sunday school by her Christian mother, heard another side from her atheist father, but the "world's biggest selling book" convinced her to embrace the church. She won't say what denomination. That's immaterial, she argues. "Those outside the church are quite focused on (denominations), whereas those inside the church aren't. There's greater unity in the Christian churches than there has ever been."
That's the case in Christian RI, at least. Over time, the churches have joined the Christian RI Network to the point that today, 95 per cent of children who receive Christian RI do so not from a priest or pastor of a single church but from volunteers from a range of churches that have signed up to a cooperative agreement.
Take Grenning, for example, who teaches in three Brisbane schools, including Windsor. I tell her that Courtice, whose daughter goes to Windsor, told me Grenning was now a member of the evangelical church, St Lucia Bible Church, but none of the children Grenning instructs are members of that church. She's taken aback that I've been told her current church but says: "I'm not there representing my church, I'm there representing Christian RI. I'm teaching a curriculum that has been signed off on at the schools that I'm at by the Catholics, the Anglicans, the Baptists, the Uniting, the Presbyterians, Australian Christian Churches, the list goes on." Such unity should be celebrated, she says.
The curriculum Grenning uses is Connect, a three-stage program most commonly used for Christian RI, provided by Christian Education Publications. RI is not part of the state education curriculum. Education Queensland does not provide or select the content, although principals are expected to review the material.
Christian Education Publications is a part of Youthworks, which is the youth ministry of the Sydney Anglican diocese. Burst Christian Resources, owned by the Baptist Churches of NSW and the ACT delivers GodSpace, the second largest program. A third is being phased out this year. It was ACCESS Ministries, now known as Korus Connect, created by an ecumenical group from Victoria that provides chaplaincy services and RI materials. Victoria's decision to have RI outside class hours has led Korus to focus on programs other than in-school RI.
Grenning volunteers that there were 200,000 Victorian students in the program when it was during class time "and there is basically hardly any left now". Does that fall in numbers say anything to her? "It says the providers didn't provide it in lunchtime. It says lunchtime is for lunch. The reason it's in curriculum time is because faith is so important."
Grenning says it's quite common for parents who are not Christian to send their child to Christian RI. If some children decide to adopt Christianity after attending RI, that's fine. Just as a good music teacher can sway a child to join an orchestra, a good RI instructor may lead a child to God. "Then if they don't like it, they can drop out," she says. "Free world."
The issue of evangelising and proselytising to children was examined in 2016, after controversy over some of the teaching material in Connect.
Alison Courtice had been agitating about RI at Windsor primary and the then principal, Matthew Keong, decided to look at the material. He identified what he said were more than 30 examples of proselytising and suspended RI, leading to an Education Queensland review. "Connect lessons go beyond imparting knowledge of Biblical references," Keong found, "and extend to soliciting children to develop a personal faith in God and Jesus to become a Christian or 'Kingdom Kid'."
The religious lobby sought legal advice. Barrister Stewart Webster's opinion was that Education Queensland policy prohibited an instructor persuading a child to switch from one denomination to another denomination when taught in a cooperative agreement. But he found there was nothing in the Act or regulations to stop an instructor from encouraging a child to consider Christianity. Education Queensland agreed. The QTU's Kevin Bates, however, says: "Any suggestion of people attempting to recruit new members into any church is, in our view, contrary to the intent of the legislation."
In the wash-up, the Connect review (which later extended to the GodSpace and ACCESS materials) found the program was largely consistent with legislation, although it suggested consideration of the legislation may be warranted "to examine whether it meets contemporary community and government expectations". It found some lessons were inappropriate, such as talk of animal sacrifices and allusions to prostitution; others such as asking children to work out how to disguise a secret were contrary to student protection guidelines to safeguard against "grooming". The offending lessons have been removed, says Grenning. There's no need for a parliamentary committee review.
"What I would like to know is the reason for a review. The people who opt their children into the program overwhelmingly love it. The only complaints we hear are from those who have already exercised their democratic right by not putting their children into the program."
An old church newsletter found online led Alison Courtice to the State Library online catalogue last year, looking for an unusual name. She keyed in "Gutekunst", and religious instruction, and "bam, it popped up" - a 1972 report by a committee of inquiry into religious instruction in Queensland state schools, chaired by the then regional director of education, E.F. Gutekunst and ordered by the then Education Minister, Sir Alan Fletcher.
Courtice tracked its history and found it had been restricted from view under Cabinet secrecy provisions for 30 years, only released to the library in 2002. "I thought, 'It must be good if (the then premier) Joh Bjelke-Petersen hid it for 30 years," says Courtice. "I read it and I was absolutely stunned. It found (RI) was educationally unsound and shouldn't be in state schools."
The report recommended dispensing with the delivery of RI by religious leaders or volunteers and replacing it with an Education Department curriculum subject of religious education to be taught by teachers, not volunteers. "In a world rapidly becoming a 'global village'," the report said, "there is need for increased international understanding if peace is to be attained. Such mutual tolerance may be further fostered by educational programs which aim at the broadening and understanding of cultures and religions beyond our own."
Says Courtice: "I thought, 'We've been reinventing the wheel to get to the same spot they got to in 1972'."
Grenning argues much has changed since 1972 in the way RI is delivered and comparisons are irrelevant. But Courtice says it seems the political will to act was lacking then and she's concerned that's still the case. She says government politicians have told the QPSSS that anything to do with religion gets the phones running hot. Still, the QPSSS has been promised a meeting with Education Minister, Grace Grace. But the Minister told Qweekend in a statement that religious instruction was reviewed in 2004, preceding an updated Education (General Provisions) Act of 2006 and: "There is currently no plan to review religious instruction provisions."
The QTU's Kevin Bates says it's curious that a "courageous" government that tackles issues that hit the religious nerve, such as abortion and euthanasia, baulks at overhauling RI. He says that in a crowded curriculum, with "an increasing expectation from the community around a whole range of other responsibilities - child safety, road safety, financial literacy" forfeiting up to one hour a week to RI is "unsustainable".
Other educators disagree. A retired principal of Springfield Lakes primary, Peter Doyle, 63, who describes himself as a "submarine Catholic - I rise to the surface occasionally" says RI is beneficial to a school's culture. He experienced rare incidences of instructors "trying to recruit people to their church" at the school but it was reported and he counselled the instructor against it. "My view is when the religious instructors work with the school, it goes very well."
Complaints are rare, says the Multi-Faiths RI Peak Body, and dealt with by Education Queensland. Following the Connect review, instructors have been told to use the latest Christian teaching materials. The group has started an independent review to ensure its Christian curricula meets government expectations.
The Jewish, Islamic and Buddhist groups produce their own study materials but just how many schools offer RI in those faiths is unclear. A request through the Multi-Faiths' PR company for numbers was ignored. Grenning says the argument that other faiths are poorly represented, and children of those religions may feel excluded, is not reason to abandon RI. "I would say the answer to that is having more RI, talking to other local faith groups to get involved."
As for replacing religious instruction with curriculum-based lessons on world religions, Grenning is cool. "I'm not sure that every parent in Queensland wants their children taught detailed lessons about other faith groups," she says.
The QPSSS trio are committed to keeping the issue on the political agenda and look forward to meeting Grace. "We're not going to give up," says Courtice. They might have to dig in. They've only been trying to get religious instruction out of schools for five years; it took Reverend Garland and the Bible league 20 years to get it in.