EDITORIAL: Questions for NSW governments on special religious education

THE NSW Education Act of 1990 – which governs the operation of this state’s public schools – says that up to one hour a week can be “be allowed for the religious education of children of any religious persuasion”. 

At the same time, however, no child is to be forced to receive general or special religious education. As an alternative, children can be educated in ethics, “as a secular alternative to special religious education”.

Given an Australia built on the supposed separation of church and state, it is in some ways surprising that religious instruction is being offered in public schools at all.

After all, in an age when the traditional view of the family is being put to the test, it is remarkable that one group of people – the religiously inclined – are given such special treatment that their particular view of things is allowed to be thrust on young people in a place of learning, rather than at home, where the parents or guardians of individual children have the right (within legal limits) to instruct them as they see fit.

Supporters of special religious education may well say the same about ethics, and argue that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

But the difference – in the words of ethics provider Primary Ethics – is that secular ethics explores the fundamental issues of life by means of “reasoned argument about values and principles, rather than an appeal to religion or cultural norms”.

Simply put, ethics teaches children to think for themselves, rather than to accept biblical instruction as a basis for values. There may be nothing wrong with religion in itself – although as the Royal Commission and other investigations around the world are showing, there is a long history of wrongdoing and cover-up by the leaders, and the foot soldiers, of many religious institutions.

For this reason alone, it is extraordinary that the secular education system, from the education minister down, seems to have little if any control over what is being taught in religious classes, and who is teaching it.

It might be all very well to say that we know what is being taught: it’s the Bible. But as thousands of years of religious wars have shown us, there are lots of ways to interpret the word of God.

Parents would have a better idea of what was going on in special religion classes if the NSW government released the report it received more than a year ago on the subject. The longer it waits, the worse things look.

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