Religious Instruction in Schools

Religious Instruction in Schools Project Overview

Photo of Hunters Hill, New South Wales, Public SchoolBackground to Religious Instruction

The Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV) has been campaigning for reform in Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in Victoria since 1973. In that year, HSV presented a submission on religious instruction to the Education Department’s Committee on Religious Education (W. B. Russell, 1974). Our view had some influence on bringing about the broadening the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 by introducing General Religious Education (GRE) as a supplement to SRI. (HSV had recommended repealing religious instruction entirely. (Currently, the concept of GRE is largely encapsulated within the Victorian schools’ ‘world-views’ curriculum.)

Subsequently, in 2008, the HSV submitted a draft course on Practical Ethics to the Department, updating our submission of 1973. However, in August 2009, this proved unacceptable to the Minister for Education, Hon. Bronwyn Pike, on the grounds that the Society lacked ‘registration’ as a religion. (Following compulsory VCAT mediation in 2011, the Department announced that it could permit the HSV course, regardless.)

In 2010, HSV member, Dr Harry Gardner, obtained through an FOI request data on the extent of special religious instruction in State schools. Surprisingly, this information was not compiled by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. Data collection on RI for all religions and no religion state-wide was collected and managed by ACCESS ministries. Its own data is aggregated with Departmental data and then returned to the other religion providers. This outsourcing of data services to a private religious body is a significant conflict of interest. The ACCESS ministries report obtained showed a significantly lower percentage of children taught by religious instruction volunteers than previously claimed. The report indicated only 124,447 (39.13%) primary school children were taught RI in 2010. This marks a substantial decrease from the 146,696 (46.14%) taught in 2005. The number of children exempted from RI was 44,977 (14.14%) in 2010, up from 39,639 (12.47%) exempted in 2005. Exemptions peaked at 50,745 (15.69%) in 2009.

Meanwhile, media publicity in 2009 and 2010 alerted HSV members to many parental complaints about SRI. For example, in response to The Age article published on 7 November 2010, Thou shall not teach humanism: ALP, we were inundated with parents writing to us with their concerns about RI teaching at their children’s school.

In a survey conducted by HSV of parents protesting SRI, they reported they wanted (i) ethics lessons to replace Christian Religious Education (CRE) (the predominant brand of SRI) during school hours, and (ii) CRE/SRI to be rescheduled to after regular school hours.

Half of the parents who responded also complained that their children were required to sit at the back of the very same CRE/SRI classroom “being quiet”, even though the parent had tried to opt them out of CRE/SRI. Furthermore, some of the other parents objected to the (i) inadequate alternative accommodation provided for their children during CRE/SRI, (ii) pressures from the school community, (iii) misinformation on factual matters, and (iv) the bribing of CRE/SRI students with lollies, shiny books, etc., in the presence of their own opted-out children sitting at the back of the same room.

The last item proved very effective, and some parents had reported that their children were now attending religious instruction to get the goodies. In addition, the necessity of parents having to opt their children out of religious instruction in writing left a paper trail exposing the parents’ views on religion. So, taken together, these practices exhibited a strong element of informal coercion.

Legal and Social Challenges to Religious Instruction

In 2010, HSV sent a questionnaire on religious education to all parliamentary candidates for the Victorian elections in an effort to gauge their attitudes to religious instruction in schools. In addition, in that year, HSV contacted the Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH). Officers at PILCH initially spoke with six parents who had contacted HSV. They then put us in touch with law firm, Holding Redlich. Andrea Tsalamandris, Radhika Kanhai and their colleagues interviewed some thirty parents, choosing three who were available to attend the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) hearing.

HSV’s objection to SRI revolved around three key principles:

  1. For parents, Special Religious Instruction (SRI) should be ‘opt-in’, not ‘opt-out’. SRI classes ought to be voluntary.
  2. SRI lessons should be an after-school option, so students who are not involved can leave the premises. That was the case in Victoria from 1872 to 1950.
  3. Lessons in General Religious Education (GRE) should be included in the regular curriculum. That will require some teacher training.

While HSV was preparing for the upcoming VCAT case, on 9 February 2011, HSV President, Stephen Stuart, sent a letter to Presidents of School Councils in Victoria. In this letter, Mr Stuart explained the traps and pitfalls of delivering RI in public schools and offered some options. HSV followed up this letter with a model survey on religious instruction sent to school councils. The purpose of this survey was for school councils to gauge the attitude of students’ parents to how religious education is practiced in their schools and their options as parents. Even as late as October 2011, there remained considerable confusion by school councils and parents on the regulative framework underpinning RI.

Throughout 2012, school Principals and parents were increasingly objecting to the teaching of SRI in public schools. On 17 February 2012, The Age reported in an article titled Primary school principals shut down religious education classes that some Principals had objected to Special Religious Instruction (SRI) volunteer instructors, mostly from ACCESS ministries (AM), propagandizing in their schools. Cited as factors were the poor educational quality of ACCESS ministries’ materials and the disruption to classes. The same report also told of several parents who had wanted their children excluded from SRI, only to discover later that “clerical error” had placed them in such classes.

Then, on 23 February 2012, the Sunday Age [] and ABC News reported that parents with children at Torquay College had objected to material handed out by ACCESS ministries that presented sexual stereotyping and anti-gay views.

On 1 to 9 March 2012, Holding Redlich presented the case on the perceived discrimination of the children of Sophie Aitken and others caused by the administration of Special Religious Instruction in State primary schools. Holding Redlich solicitors, Andrea Tsalamandris and Radhika Kanhai, along with their colleagues and counsels, Melinda Richards and Anna Forsyth, deployed their services pro bono in the preparation and presentation of this seminal case.

The single judge, Mr Justice Timothy Ginnane, took evidence over five days from three parents, the Principals of their Primary Schools, 17 of their teachers and a Departmental spokesperson. In addition, Counsel for the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission intervened, supporting HSV’s view.

Women played a very significant role in the case. In addition to two complainants, 7 of the 8 lawyers at the bar table were women, including several mothers. In the interim, Justice Ginnane reserved judgment. At its conclusion, both HSV’s VCAT case against SRI and the Supreme Court Appeal on SRI were dismissed.

While this case was not upheld, it led to the Education Department changing the way parents chose SRI from ‘opt out’ to ‘opt in’. Previously, parents of school-aged children were required to ‘opt out’ of SRI. The new rule changed the default enrolment to ‘opt out’ so that parents wanting SRI for their child needed to ‘opt in’. Subsequent to this change, SRI enrolments fell from 92,808 Victorian students in 2013 to 53,361 in 2014: a 42 per cent plunge.

Not surprisingly, with numbers falling, ACCESS ministries has sought clarification on what it claims are its right to teach their program in schools. In 2014, ACCESS ministries was the largest provider of SRI (81 per cent of students) and the only religious grouping given government funding for this purpose. Several minority religions (e.g., Baha’i and Buddhism) teach SRI without government funding.

Following media coverage and agitation from ACCESS ministries, in May 2014, the Education Minister, Hon. Martin Dixon, issued the ministerial direction No. 141, aimed at  clarifying any confusion over the relevant section of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006. This direction confirmed that in this case “may” meant “must”;  that principals were required to offer SRI if an accredited instructor was available. (This direction was revoked by a new government in November 2015 with ministerial direction No. 145. The new direction restricted SRI to lunchtime or out of compulsory school hours and gave to principals the power to accept or refuse the instructors.)

Meanwhile, Parents Victoria petitioned the government to remove religious instruction from school hours, without success. Their executive officer said Parents Victoria “believe the teaching of a particular religion should be a family responsibility, not that of the school.”

In addition, the President of the Victorian Principals Association said that with half a grade taking SRI and the other half not, there “can be a difficult logistical challenge”. This is because schools were not permitted to teach the regular curriculum while some students took part in religious instruction.

The public discussion on this topic led the Wheeler Centre, in partnership with the St James Ethics Centre, to co-sponsor a debate, Faith-based religious education has no place in public schools. This was held in the Melbourne Town Hall on 26 February 2014. The ‘for’ side was led by Marion Maddox, author of God under Howard and Taking God to Schools. The ‘against’ side was led by journalist Nick Cater.

Although the two sides differed on the value of faith-based SRI, both sides supported a professionally taught course in comparative religion. The debate revealed considerable common ground among all speakers. With the increasing number of parents opting their children out of SRI, Parents Victoria had requested the removal of SRI from school. In support, many Principals also wanted to exclude SRI and there was growing agitation for professionally taught ‘comparative religion/ beliefs’ within the school curriculum.

On 12 November 2014, just prior to a State election in Victoria, the Secular Coalition of Australia sent a letter to both the Minister and the Shadow Minister for Education requesting a meeting to discuss replacing SRI with General Religious Education (GRE). Co-signatories included other freethought and religious organisations and the parent lobby group, FIRIS. HSV was a founding member of the Secular Coalition of Australia and a co-writer of the letter was the current President of HSV, Rod Bower.


VCAT verdict in Sophie Aitken and Ors v State of Victoria – Department of Education and Early Child Development [2012] VCAT 1547

Supreme Court verdict in Sophie Aitken and Ors v State of Victoria [2013] VSCA 28

  1. Project Overview
  2. Special Religious Instruction Campaign Chronology
  3. Parent Responses to Religious Instruction
  4. Religious Instruction in State Schools Promotes Prejudice
  5. Religious Instruction by Australian State
  6. Victorian Education Act – 1950 Amendment