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Posted by on Feb 22, 2013 in In the news, Law, Religion | 5 comments

Religious education upheld as legal in Victoria

Meanwhile, related to the previous post, an attempt to stop religious education in public schools has failed in the (Australian) state of Victoria. The case was brought on the basis that the system discriminates against children who are not religious. It originally failed in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, and leave to appeal has now been refused by the Court of Appeal. Once again, part of the angst about the case appears to be the aggressively proselytising attitude that (so I hear) is now taken by organisations and individuals offering religious education programs. This is very different from the rather ineffectual “scripture” classes that I encountered at primary school and high school back in the 1960s and 1970s.

There is no constitutional separation of church and state at state level in Australia, so the case was not run on those grounds. It was pursued as a case of alleged discrimination, though I must say I always had doubts as to whether it could succeed in that form. However annoying the system might be to secular parents, I’ve never been convinced that their children were placed in a position of academic disadvantage (participation is voluntary, and nothing about the activity seems to be examinable or in any way a prerequisite to passing courses or being graded at any particular level).

Something appears to have been gained in that the education department amended its policy to make it more acceptable, at least in theory, to secular parents. However, it’s not clear to me what effect this will have in practice.

Once again, from a broad policy viewpoint there is no good argument for these sorts of classes in a public school system. That is fairly basic to secularism – why should the government of a secular country, or of one of its constituent states, be giving special opportunities to religious organisations? That, however, is not much of a legal argument, without more, in the absence of some kind of constitutional protection of secular arrangements. Other arguments have to be relied on, and the legal arguments on this occasion were dubious. A further appeal might be possible, but I doubt that it could succeed.

Nonetheless, I expect more and more challenges to the anachronistic arrangements whereby religious teaching is allowed in public schools. One way or other, the systems in the Australian states will have to adapt and change to reflect more modern ideas of the role of religion in society and religion’s relationship to political power.