Speech by Rod Benson, Public Affairs Director, NSW Council of Churches, to a public meeting for “Save Our Scripture,” NSW Parliament, Monday 28 February 2011. There were about 180 people present.
For more than 140 years students in NSW state schools have enjoyed access to religious education, a situation that is the envy of my Christian friends in godless nations such as the United States of America.
Both General Religious Education (GRE) and Special Religious Education (SRE) are offered in NSW. SRE is education in the distinctive religious tenets and beliefs of the home and family, provided by the churches and other religious groups for children of parents expressing the desire for such teaching, whether they are of a particular faith or no faith.
As NSW Baptist Past-President Professor Alan Rice has observed, students surveyed have expressed positive views about the legitimate spiritual benefits of attending SRE classes:
- “I am glad I have had the chance to learn about Christianity and about God – I would otherwise know practically nothing if I had not come to this class.”
- “I think this subject has provided me with the opportunity to be accepted by God.”
- “I think it has helped me … I would definitely find it easier now to turn to God as I understand things better.”
There are many facets to the operation of SRE, both educational and practical. It is not about indoctrination; nor is it about proselytizing from other religions; nor is it, as one opponent put it to me on Twitter, about the better organised and resourced churches “brainwashing our kids.”
The committee responsible for the Rawlinson Report (1980) into religious education in schools concluded that a study of religion can make a contribution to the intellectual, moral and spiritual development of children as well as to their understanding of society and its religious traditions.
The benefits of religious education are seen to result from a range of skills and qualities such as:
- Development of empathy and social conscience
- Whole person learning – social and emotional development
- Trust and care
- Positive environment based upon security and supportiveness.
After 140 years, the foundations of a broad-based approach to the provision of religious education in NSW are firm. But the foundations could be tested and opposed at any time, and could be varied if there were democratic and/or political will to do so.
That time has come.
The push by the St James Ethics Centre and the Federation of Parents and Citizens’ Associations of NSW to introduce secular ethics classes, with a curriculum created by Professor Phillip Cam of the University of NSW is commendable, but not at the expense of SRE.
One has to ask: How will this new educational initiative be funded and administered? Where are the volunteer teachers, and will they receive adequate training? And the biggest question of all: how can ethics be values-neutral?
It is simply wrong to undermine SRE by teaching ethics as an alternative under the guise of providing “complementary” curriculum content. The ideal alternative for those students who opt out of an SRE class, where there is critical exposure to a particular faith, is a comparative religions class, not an ethics class with the spiritual oxygen sucked out of it.
At its best ours is a pluralist society and an inclusive community, and of all our institutions, our schools should model those ideals. Let’s not build walls where there should be none. The current debate should be about how moral philosophy could be better integrated in the whole school curriculum, not tacked on as an optional extra for students who opt out of religious education classes.
But as the March 26 election approaches, the issue of ethics versus SRE has been politicized by the NSW Labor Party, and set aside by the Coalition. And it goes to the heart of what The Greens, the CDP and Family First stand for – The Greens committed to a world emphatically without religion, and the Christian parties committed to Christian Australia, or something approaching that.
We all know that the Labor Party won’t help us. They signed the virtual death warrant of SRE last November, and then prorogued Parliament. But Barry O’Farrell’s Opposition Coalition is set to feed off the bones left behind by Labor should they win on March 26.
On the basis of statements by Mr Piccoli on November 24, it seemed clear that a Coalition Government would not support the continuation of the ethics classes. Then in early February Mr O’Farrell backed down, claiming the battle was over, and vowing to support the Keneally Government in rolling out ethics classes across the state.
Then on February 15, at a televised event here in this room organised by the Australian Christian Lobby, both party leaders backed away from agreeing to calls by church leaders for a comprehensive review of the ethics classes in 2012.
What we need today is leadership on this issue. I call on Mr O’Farrell to commit to a comprehensive independent review of the ethics classes including their impact on the teaching of SRE; and to assure people of faith in NSW that ethics classes will not, by design or default, spell the demise of Special Religious Education.
The Christian faith has profoundly shaped Australian society, has a central place in Australian life today, and will continue to shape our great nation for generations to come.
Politicians and policy makers must resist pressure by atheist and secularist lobby groups to excise religious belief from the minds and hearts of the young, from our books and screens, from our education curriculum. Because what they offer in its place is an arid alternative, born of the will to power, fostering an arbitrary moralism that will ultimately and inevitably bring about the death of civilization.
We flourish amid diversity of opinion and belief. Special Religious Education offers children in NSW an excellent opportunity, at their parents’ or guardians’ discretion, to learn about life, ethics and personal responsibility from the vantage point of a religious tradition. For more than 140 years children have enjoyed this privilege.
Christians who care about the spiritual heartbeat of our nation, and the spiritual welfare of our state and its institutions and community fabric, cannot stand idly by as this precious gift is dismantled by the enemies of faith and freedom. Save our Scripture.
This address may be quoted or distributed with full referencing attached.
Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.