Get Religion out of Government Schools, Please!

A mother writes to me, torn with guilt about a decision she made about the education of her daughter, who began kindergarten this year. The family doesn’t believe in “structured religion”, preferring instead to raise their children as “tolerant of all religions but followers of none”.

For this reason, she refused her child’s participation in scripture instruction offered by the school.

But the five-year-old was the only child in her year to be excused from the lesson and so was forced to sit alone outside the classroom while it proceeded. The little girl was so distressed that her mother – let’s call her Karen – reluctantly gave permission for her to attend Anglican scripture. But the decision doesn’t feel right and she’s still not sure that it is. What should she do?

I’m not sure what part of this dilemma astounded or offended me more. That in 2010 supposedly secular schools are teaching religion or that parents who see such tutelage as inappropriate or inconsistent with their personal values or minority religion beliefs must choose between raising their kids as they see fit or being party to their symbolic casting out.

At first I thought this story, however sad, must be one out of the box. A one-off predicament that bore no relationship to the parenting experience of the divinely challenged raising kids in NSW. But I was wrong. The basic elements of Karen’s story, and the ethical dilemma to which they give rise, is one facing about one in four families with school-age kids (the Education Department does not keep statistics on the exact number of kids who refuse religious education).

Some of these parents tell their stories on a Facebook site dedicated to the issue, revealing heartbreaking tales of primary-age children forced to sit alone in a photocopying room while the rest of the class learned religion, or of being denied the right to undertake even the most innocuous time-killing activities – like knitting – when religious parents complained to the school that their kids were coming home with pleas to escape scripture so they could do the same.

The origins of the problem date back to the 1800s, when the newly emergent state government brokered a deal with the churches. In exchange for loosening the stranglehold Christians had on education services, the provider – the state – would dedicate an hour for religious studies each week.

Religious groups could choose a member of the clergy or any instructor they liked to teach children, well, anything they wished. Such as God made Adam and Eve and all the world. Or that Jesus put mud in someone’s eye and that man could see again.

While the Education Act of 1990 gave parents the right to opt out for their children, it prohibited such students being offered timetabled lessons or scheduled school activities.

So where does this Faustian pact leave parents like Karen? Between a rock and a hard place, which is why I have no problem with them making whatever short-term decision they feel necessary to protect their children’s psychological and emotional health. Children should never be sacrificed on the altar of their parents’ principles.

But in the long-term Karen, and others like her, must fight. Beat on the door of the Education Minister until she amends the department’s policy that prescribes suitable alternatives being provided for kids whose parents say no to scripture. So that no parent, or child, has to endure what they’ve had to again.

Publication history

Find these kids an alternative, for god's sake  The Sydney Morning Herald