History of the SRI case, 1973?2012

Thanks to our splendid pro bono lawyers

The Humanist Society of Victoria thanks solicitors Andrea Tsalamandris, Radhika Kanhai and colleagues in Holding Redlich, together with their counsels, Melinda Richards and Anna Forsyth, for their superb pro bono preparation and presentation of the case of Sophie Aitken and others versus the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, at VCAT, 1 ? 9 March 2012, on the perceived discrimination of their children caused by the administration of special religious instruction (SRI) in State primary schools.

Back in 1973 the Society presented a submission on religious instruction to the Department’s Committee on Religious Education (W. Russell, 1974), and we understand that our view had some influence on broadening the Education and Training Reform Act of 2006 by introducing general religious education (GRE) in addition to SRI. (We had recommended repealing religious instruction entirely. Today we would also request a secular term for GRE, namely ‘world-view education’.)

Subsequently, in 2008, the Society submitted a draft course on applied ethics to the Department, updating our submission of 1973, but this proved unacceptable to the Minister in 2009 on the grounds that the Society lacked ‘registration’ as a religion. (Following compulsory VCAT mediation in 2011, the Department announced that it could permit our course, regardless!)

Meanwhile media publicity in 2009 – 2010 alerted us to many parental complaints about SRI, and we contacted the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH) in 2010. PILCH spoke with six parents who had contacted us and then put us in touch with Holding Redlich. Andrea Tsalamandris, Radhika Kanhai and their colleagues interviewed some thirty parents, choosing three who could attend VCAT. Nineteen months later the case was so eloquently presented by Melinda Richards that our member (HG below) who had delivered our first submission in 1973 was deeply moved, a fulfillment.

This was the first time that religious instruction in this State has been challenged in court. The single judge, Mr Justice Timothy Ginnane, took evidence over five days from three parents, the principals of their primary schools, seventeen of their teachers, and a Departmental spokesperson. In addition, Counsel for the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission intervened, supporting our view. (The decision was reserved.)

In addition to two complainants, seven of the eight lawyers at the bar table were women, including several mums, showing that women were speaking out wonderfully for the care of children.

On behalf of a significant number of primary school parents and their children, we express our thanks to the lawyers who, together with their chosen complainants, opposed religious discrimination in schools in such a forceful and professional manner!

Harry Gardner, Children’s Ethics Tutor; John Russell, Vice-president; Stephen Stuart, President, Humanist Society of Victoria Inc.

Both our VCAT case and our  Supreme Court Appeal were dismissed.

The distribution of SRI throughout Australian States and territories remains well entrenched; see Religion in Australian Government Schools.

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