Religion, politics and school community
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 82 summer 2010
This year has produced a number of sobering lessons about the intersection between religion and politics, writes Simon Longstaff.
As some will know, St James Ethics Centre has spent around eight years working in support of parents who wish that their children be able to study philosophical ethics if not attending Special Religious Education (SRE or scripture) classes in NSW State Primary Schools.
In November 2010, the NSW State Government approved a change of policy that would allow this to happen - under strict conditions. For example:
- all children would be enrolled in SRE by default if a religion had been specified by their parents at the time of enrolment;
- parents would have to actively ‘opt out’ of SRE as a discreet choice before being offered the opportunity for their children to attend classes in philosophical ethics; and
- all of the curriculum material developed for the ethics classes would have to be made freely available to faith groups for their unrestricted use in NSW.
Some critics of the proposal, from amongst some churches, have said that St James Ethics Centre is seeking to ‘compete’ against SRE providers. But what kind of competition is it when you promise only to offer your product to those who have already rejected all others and where you give your competitors your own ‘goods’ for them to sell?
What I had not expected from the proposal’s opponents is the extent to which they have been prepared to set aside a scrupulous regard for truth and accuracy in their quest to exercise political influence. The day after the NSW Government announced that ethics classes would go ahead, the NSW Council of Churches issued a press release, under the name of the Reverend Richard Quadrio, that included the following paragraph:
Meetings have already been held between leaders of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist religions to discuss a strategy to oppose this policy in the upcoming election campaign.
Anyone reading this might have been forgiven for thinking that people of all faiths were universally opposed to the change in policy and that they were ‘girding their loins’ to take on the politicians at the 2011 NSW State election.
Later that day, the NSW Council of Churches issued a retraction - removing the offending paragraph. Why? Because the Jewish and Islamic communities had certainly not been consulted and do not oppose the proposal outlined above.
Although I cannot confirm this, I seriously doubt that the Buddhists had been involved (as they have tried to remain at a distance from the issue which they find to be too confrontational). The Uniting Church was not involved in any such discussion (they positively approve of the proposal as consistent with their Christian convictions). More importantly, the Catholic Church was not consulted and I rather suspect that the Anglican Diocese of Sydney found the pronouncements of the NSW Council of Churches something of an overstatement of reality.
However, by the time of the retraction, the damage was done.
That evening, the NSW Coalition parties, widely assumed to be a government-in-waiting, declared that, if elected, they would roll back any change in policy and once again put children not attending SRE into their current state of disadvantage.
What is their reason for doing so? They do not wish ethics classes to be an alternative to SRE and they wish all children to have access to further classes in ethics.
What we have proposed is NOT an alternative to SRE. It is an alternative to watching videos, or doing homework in the library. The Coalition have adopted a very biased position in which they are perfectly happy for children to receive additional ethical instruction as long as it is provided by faith groups but will prevent children not attending SRE from enjoying the same opportunity. That is, the Coalition wish to discriminate against the children of parents who may not wish to attend SRE for any one of a number of reasons: because their faith is not taught, because they wish to reserve religious instruction for the home, because they are not religious, etc. Everyone else can receive additional ethical instruction - but NOT THESE CHILDREN.
This is no idle speculation on my part. Writing on behalf of the NSW Catholic Bishops, Bishop Peter Ingham made the point absolutely clear when he wrote that:
The Catholic Church has a very balanced, full SRE curriculum, which includes thorough ethical instruction for making good life choices. The uptake of scripture by students and families in government schools remains very strong right throughout NSW. The roughly 12,000 scripture teachers statewide, are one of the biggest volunteer forces in NSW. Not only do faith traditions provide good ethical teaching, but an understanding of how a relationship with God helps answer the big questions of life, provide an understanding of sacred scripture, rites of passage, history, and prayer.
We have always acknowledged that there is much done in SRE that goes well beyond the teaching of ethics. That is why we have remained such strong supporters of SRE and its maintenance as an option for children in State schools. But we have also pointed out the obvious fact that SRE is, at least in part, about ethics.
Why then should this part be denied to children not attending SRE? Why is parental choice to be so completely circumscribed in the public schools provided by a secular state for all children - irrespective of their faith?
People sometimes wonder if philosophical ethics equals relativism. It does not. And to demonstrate the point let me say this: those who oppose a change in policy are WRONG.