Special Religious Instruction Campaign Chronology

Photo of astronomical clock in Prague Old Town SquareThe table below chronicles the efforts by the Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV) to reform the manner in which Special Religious Instruction (SRI) is regulated, designed and implemented in Victorian schools. Beginning in 2009, HSV canvassed the rollout of practical ethics classes to primary school students in public schools. After this was rejected by the government, HSV collected many stories of dissatisfaction from parents over the current religious instruction regime. With support from the teachers’ union, HSV lodged a complaint with the equal opportunity commission, leading to legal challenges, first in VCAT and then to the Supreme Court. HSV’s aim throughout was to stem the privileged access to public school children afforded to religious bodies, such as ACCESS ministries. Such privileges enshrined the right to indoctrinate school students into Christianity during schools hours while barring the secular teaching of ethics in classrooms. Through persistence, HSV and allied groups stemmed the influence of religious bodies in Victorian schools.

Date Event Description
9 Aug 2009 Considering the application by HSV to provide practical ethics lessons in State schools, under the statutory category of special religious instruction (SRI) defined in the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 (§ 2.2.11), the State minister for education rejects the proposal, on the specious excuse that ‘the Humanist Society is not registered as a religious organisation in Australia’.
Feb 2010 As a result of press publicity, members of the public who are perturbed by SRI begin to contact HSV’s children’s ethics tutor, Dr Harry Gardner, some with harrowing stories.
Jun 2010 HSV approaches Public Interest Law Clearing House (PILCH Vic.), asking whether SRI accords with contemporary law or not.
22 Oct 2010 PILCH referred the matter to pro bono solicitors Holding Redlich, who advise that parents could lodge a complaint with Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) “based upon the hurt, humiliation and pain and suffering” experienced by children when isolated from the rest of the class engaged in SRI with little to do and therefore being subject to indirect discrimination’.
7 Nov 2010 The government’s rejection (2009) of HSV’s applied ethics as an alternative to SRI and HSV’s plan for legal challenge are announced in the press (Michael Bachelard, Sunday Age). HSV marshals parents’ complaints and starts forwarding them to Holding Redlich.
16 Feb 2011 HSV meets with pro bono legal counsel engaged by Holding Redlich.
25 Feb 2011 HSV sends circular letter (composed and dated 9 Feb 2011) to all State primary school councils, ‘Religious instruction in government primary schools’.
27 Feb 2011 HSV calls a meeting of protesting parents, who agree to form a group. Later, HSV provides a contact email address. The group calls itself Fairness In Religions In School (FIRIS) and sets up a website.
9 Mar 2011 HSV issues media release, ‘Religious discrimination in State primary schools’.
24 Mar 2011 Holding Redlich lodge complaint with VEOHRC, on behalf of three families, against Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DEECD).
5 Apr 2011 Academic religious educators (REENA) call for comprehensive review of SRI in all States.
13 May 2011 Victorian branch council of Australian Education Union (AEU) calls for removal of SRI from school hours. Education Minister, Martin Dixon, warns ACCESS ministries against proselytizing in SRI.
17 Jul 2011 HSV emails State primary schools with a religious instruction model survey.
Late Jul 2011 DEECD issues revised guidelines about SRI for school principals.
8 Aug 2011 Mediation hearing called by VEOHRC fails to settle the dispute, and the case passes to Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).
24 Aug 2011 DEECD issues another revision of SRI policy. Parental consent is required and, if consent is not given, the student can receive ‘non-core’ secular instruction instead.
1–9 Mar 2012 After several postponements, Judge Timothy Ginnane of VCAT hears the case of Sophie Aitken and others vs DEECD, the first time the administration of SRI in Victoria has been challenged in a court of law. VEOHRC intervenes and submits that the Education and Training Reform Act 2006 can be interpreted as not requiring SRI to be given during school hours. Judge reserves his decision.
8 Mar 2012 HSV issues media release, ‘Reforming religious and ethics education in Victorian primary schools’.
9 Mar 2012 HSV issues media release, ‘Test case of religious discrimination in State schools’.
18 Oct 2012 The Tribunal hands down its decision. While acknowledging the grievances raised by the parents, the case against DEECD was dismissed on the grounds that the parents had failed to establish that any discrimination had occurred to their children when they were withdrawn from SRI.
22 Oct 2012 HSV issues media release, ‘Complaints of religious discrimination dismissed by VCAT’.
4 Nov 2012 HSV convenes a public forum to examine religious education in State primary schools.
7 Nov 2012 HSV issues media release, ‘Reforming religious education in State primary schools’.
22 Feb 2013 Supreme Court acting as Court of Appeal refuses application to appeal against VCAT’s decision, but nevertheless rules (§77), “There is no longer any prohibition on offering an ethics course to children who do not participate in SRI.”
6 Sep 2013 HSV convenes a public forum (at annual conference, Vic. Association for Philosophy in Schools), calling for volunteers to demonstrate ‘the community of ethical inquiry’ as an extra-curricular enrichment activity in State primary schools. It is intended as a stop-gap measure, as HSV does not envisage SRI being abandoned in the foreseeable future.
23 Feb 2014 Parents object to ACCESS ministries distributing, at Torquay College, material advancing sexual stereotypes and anti-gay opinions.
26 Feb 2014 Intelligence Squared Debate in Melbourne Town Hall, ‘Faith-based religious education has no place in public schools’. Both sides support a course of comparative religion taught by professional teachers – as submitted by HSV in 1973.
1 May 2014 Education minister issues clarification of SRI policy (Ministerial Direction 141, applying in Term 3, 2014). On the school’s power of discretion, where the Act says SRI “may be given”, he rules as follows (§6(1)). “If a principal receives notification from an accredited and approved instructor that the instructor is available to deliver SRI at the school, the principal must offer parents of children enrolled at the school the opportunity for their children to be provided with SRI.” A student is not to receive SRI unless the parents have opted in, and instructors are forbidden to offer inducements to convert students.
Jul 2014 State funding of ACCESS ministries for SRI ceases.
6 Oct 2014 HSV pilot program of Community of Ethical Inquiry begins at three State schools, with 111 students and 7 trained volunteer facilitators, during Term 4.
14 Jan 2015 HSV writes to Education minister in new government that the State has no responsibility to fund operation of religious organisations in schools.
1 Aug 2015 Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania withdraws support of ACCESS ministries over its SRI program.
21 Aug 2015 State government prohibits SRI from school hours – as recommended by AEU in May 2011 and VEOHRC in March 2012.
15 Sep 2015 Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority issues new curriculum for years F–10.
30 Sep 2015 HSV launches report of its pilot program, Bringing ethical understanding to primary schools.
9 Nov 2015 Education minister explains new policy (Ministerial Direction 145, applying in Term 1, 2016). SRI is limited to 30 minutes per week at lunchtime, before school or after; principals should have regard to religious variety within the school community.
19 Feb 2016 FIRIS announces that at least 55 schools have axed SRI this year.
30 Jan 2017 FIRIS launches campaign against scripture lessons in NSW State schools.
    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