The Separation of Church and State Schools was the theme of a conference hosted in Brisbane by the Humanist Society of Queensland on the weekend of 13-14 October 2012.
With conference speakers including academics and representatives of teacher and parent groups, the conference focused on four key areas of concern:
- Religious instruction classes conducted during school hours
- Chaplains in state schools
- State funding for religious schools
- The teaching of creationism and/or intelligent design as “science” in the science classroom
As Hugh Wilson from the Australian Secular Lobby noted, “Queensland’s 1875 Education Act brought us “free, compulsory and secular” public education, of which only the compulsory element survives.” The dismantling of Australia’s secular public education system is a nationwide phenomenon. Although, as Catherine Byrne from Macquarie University said:
“Queensland has ended up with the least secular system in the country. It discriminates against those who do not want state schools to be centres of protestant conversion. It is undemocratic in that it supports particular denominations and blocks others; it is unsound in that it instils in children the idea of religious autocracy; and it is unwise because the division that it once aimed to alleviate it is now ensuring.”
Religious instruction (RI) was a particular concern for both conference speakers and attendees. An important distinction was made between children being educated about religion by trained professionals, and indoctrinated into religious beliefs by evangelical volunteers.
Many parents feel pressured to give permission for their children to attend RI. Schools complain they have insufficient staff to provide adequate supervision and, despite Education Department policies, children who opt-out often find themselves in the “naughty seat” outside the principal’s office, put out into hallways or onto verandas, or else included in the RI class against their parents’ wishes.
“My daughter was made to sit out on the steps, in the sun,” said one indignant member of the Queensland Humanists. Adding insult to injury, the child was warned to stay away from other kids’ bags because, “things have been stolen lately” – the implication, drawn by the child, was that those who did not attend religious classes were particularly suspect.
“The schools will tell you RI is ‘opt in’,” said one parent, “but it’s a lie.” During a break he explained that his child was put into an RI class without his permission. In response to his frequent complaints, she was variously sat at the back of the class, then just outside the door, in the library and then ended up back in the class again. “And it’s not just us,” he said. “I’ve been told similar stories by parents from half a dozen schools!”
These parents’ concerns were all too familiar for Peter Harrison, a speaker representing the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists (NZARH). NZARH launched a Keep Religion Out Of School campaign after receiving several letters from angry and frustrated parents who felt their concerns were not being heard.
“Many of the stories,” said Harrison, “involved confused young children upset about why they were being excluded, bullied, given rubbish duty by teachers, or at best left alone in libraries. Many parents reported not being told about religious instruction, only to have children coming home asking questions about God and saying dinosaurs didn’t really exist.”
Greg Purches, Deputy General-Secretary of the Queensland Teachers Union (QTU), confirmed that teachers are concerned that an increased focus on religion and religious instruction in schools is paralleled by campaigns to introduce creationism into schools. But the conference was to hear other troubling stories about the content of RI classes.
One parent said that, having opted her son out of RI, his seat, directly outside the open door of the classroom, put him in the ideal position to overhear a conversation between one of his class mates and the RI teacher.
“My parents are divorced. Does that mean they’ll go to hell?” asked the child.
“Well … yes,” the volunteer teacher replied matter-of-factly. “The Bible says that God hates divorce.”
Seeing the child’s distress, the teacher sought to justify the parents’ fate. “People take these vows before God, and then they just don’t stick to them.”
For Catherine Byrne, whose post-doctoral research focuses on religion in education, such horror stories are not uncommon. She spoke of RI students in state schools being shown “graphic crucifixion material” and children being told they would “burn in hell” if they failed to adhere to particular tenets of fundamentalist Christianity. One parent told Byrne that, after being shown the movie The Prince of Egypt (an animated adaptation of the Book of Exodus), their seven year old child was told, “The Jews had it coming.”
It is not only the children of non-believers who suffer from this ill-advised and discriminatory program. As one parent wrote to Byrne:
“My school has children from families that speak 42 different languages. There are Muslim, Hindu, Orthodox and secular perspectives – but we have only Christian RI.”
Representing the parents of two million state school students, Peter Garrigan, president of the Australian Council of State School Organisations (ACSSO), shared this parent’s concern. Religious families, particularly those from minority religions, he said, “should have confidence that their children will not be indoctrinated in the classroom with alternative beliefs … For those of us whose families left countries where people kill each other in the name of religion, secularism in education and government is highly prized.”
Greg Purches, from QTU, provided a teacher’s perspective on religious instruction in state schools. Chief among his union’s concerns is that RI is conducted by largely unqualified, inexpert volunteers, with few skills in engaging children or controlling classroom behaviour. As a result, said Purches, children often return to their classrooms angry and disruptive. For teachers (as well as for parents and students), he confided, having RI in schools “can be an absolute pain.”
The conference revealed that RI in schools is poorly administered, dominated by a fringe group of fundamentalist Christians and disruptive for both teachers and students. Catherine Byrne, who has undertaken extensive research in this area, ventured that the only reason more parents aren’t up in arms about religious “education” classes is that they are generally not aware of what is going on.
As bad as they are, the problems associated with RI pale in comparison to successive Federal governments committing nearly half a billion dollars towards the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program (NSCSWP).
“The problem for teachers,” said Greg Purches, “is that chaplains are being asked to take on roles for which they are untrained. Unskilled people doing highly specialized jobs are the problem – even if they are well-meaning. Properly trained guidance counsellors and psychologists are the people who should be providing support for kids. Simply, we don’t need chaplains to do that.”
“We are told chaplains aren’t counsellors,” Purches conceded, “but [we know] they spend a lot of time counselling. It’s well-meaning, but covert; talking quietly with students away from supervision.”
Indeed, it is the kind of behaviour the Australian Psychology Society identified as “dangerous” in their 2010 submission on school chaplaincy. “The problem is cost – and governments at both the state and federal levels thinking they can do it on the cheap,” said Purches, whose 44,000 members have to deal with the consequences. This, he explained, is a bigger issue for teachers than the religious aspect of the debate.
Peter Garrigan reminded the audience that, while the LNP stripped $5 million from the Queensland Education budget in 2012, they found an extra $1 million to top up Federal funding for school chaplaincy. Garrigan said his organisation is “appalled” by the National School Chaplaincy program.
“With the rising incidence of youth suicide and the increasing diagnosis of mental health issues, our young people require professionals who are equipped with the required psychological training to work with them around such sensitive issues. Yet governments continue with the cheaper, softer option that appears to be vote attracting and appease the religious lobby.”
Garrigan said “one of the biggest issues” for his organisation is that, despite DEEWR’s guidelines, religious proselytising by chaplains within the school gates “abounds.”
Speaking from the audience, a former Pentecostal lay pastor said that, when the local school chaplain addressed his church’s pastoral team, the chaplain spoke for an hour about “sharing the love of Jesus” and seeking out opportunities for “witnessing and converting,” but never once mentioned dealing with children’s issues.
It is anecdotal, of course, but his testimony suggests that what is said candidly about chaplaincy to an audience of believers is rather different to the public relations spin. As Evonne Paddison, CEO of Access Ministries, Victoria’s largest chaplaincy funding recipient, told a conference of evangelical Anglicans in 2008, “We must go and make disciples … What really matters is seizing the God-given opportunity we have to reach kids in schools.”
School chaplaincy is often defended with the claim that students’ participation in the program is voluntary. In practice, the conference heard, chaplains are ubiquitous within the school community. As one very cranky parent interjected:
“It’s not voluntary if the chaplain is the groundsman, the teacher’s aide and says prayers on assembly! It’s a logistical nightmare to withdraw my child from assembly, speech nights and all the activities in which the chaplain’s involved!”
In practice, Hugh Wilson explained, chaplains have open access to all students with no permission required, except for ‘one on one’ formal meetings. And the introduction of “secular” welfare workers to the program is cold comfort, said Wilson:
“The jobs are identical. Most of the employers appear to be Christian organisations. The job advertisements we see for ‘student welfare workers’ make no mention of any ‘secular’ requirement. In fact, you have to be a Christian and supply a pastor’s signature to get the gig.”
Peter Garrigan noted that the Australian Council of State School Organisations’ dim view of school chaplaincy was not shared by one of their member groups, the Queensland Council of Parents and Citizens’ Associations (QCPCA). Hugh Wilson pointed out that, while there is clearly a conflict between secular education and school chaplaincy, the QCPCA claims to support both. Garrigan would not comment on the reason for the Queensland association’s conflicting views.
I mentioned that some parents have complained to the Australian Secular Lobby that their P&C groups have been infiltrated by fundamentalist Christians. Garrigan said he could not comment on this. The practice was familiar, though, to the former lay pastor in the audience. He confirmed that, in his Pentecostal church, at least, stacking P&Cs in order to gain a “godly influence” over the local state school was “highly encouraged.” Another parent confirmed she had observed religious “branch stacking” in the P&C at her children’s school. When “religious” issues are on the agenda she noted, the P&C is inundated with “one-off” voters who never seem to take the same interest in more secular concerns.
Chaplaincy, said Peter Garrigan, “is probably one of the most blatant cases of government funding furthering the aims of religious organisations under the guise of a ‘support’ for students.”
State funding for religious schools
The issue of state funding for religious schools was discussed only briefly during the conference. But, there was certainly some nostalgia expressed for the pre-Whitlam era when religious schools were substantially self-funded.
Creationism in the science classroom
In 1983, Queensland Education Minister Lin Powell expressed the view that both evolution and creationism should be given equal time in high school science classes. In response to this threat to science education, Martin Bridgstock completed a careful analysis of a number of “creation science” tracts, only to reveal that 90% of their scientific references were “gravely inaccurate.” The ambitions of Queensland’s evangelical creationists were quietly put to bed.
Since then, a landmark case in the United States, Kitzmiller v the Dover Board of Education (2005), established that neither creationism nor intelligent design are “science” and as such, are not suitable subjects to be taught in a high school science class.
This should have settled the matter. But conference attendees were left speechless when Ron Williams introduced an “unscheduled speaker” – a high school teacher from a large, urban state school in south-east Queensland – who told us that at their school (and almost certainly in others), creationism is being taught “as science” to Year 11 and 12 biology students. Using only documents freely available in the public domain, the teacher talked us through the ingenious subterfuge which has turned teachers into preachers, ostensibly with the “blessing” of the Queensland Studies Authority (QSA).
The teacher explained that all secondary schools are required to submit a Biology Work Program to the QSA, setting out how their school intends to teach the required biology syllabus. A one-word reference to creationism in this school’s work program either escaped the QSA’s notice or was considered inconsequential. Regardless, the program was approved.
The imprimatur of the QSA emboldened an evangelical head of department to develop a six week senior biology course pitting creationism against evolution, on equal terms. In an apparent attempt to escape full scrutiny, however, the assessment tasks are ordered so that the fifth and final assignment – the only one not routinely monitored by the QSA – explicitly requires the students to write a paper giving equal weight to the science of evolutionary theory and the pseudo-science of creationism.
Unsurprisingly, the course-work supplied to students for this ill-advised course derives, in part, from Answers in Genesis, a group which has been criticised by America’s National Center for Science Education for its promotion of “non-science.”
Of particular concern is that, while creationist publications adopt the appearance of scientific documents, they are also laden with proselytising. To demonstrate the invidious position in which this material places science teachers, our “unscheduled speaker” read from one of the prescribed texts, Casebook: the Case Against Evolution, The Case For Creation, published in 1984:
“The controversy over creation and evolution then is really a battle between two religions. You must choose the chance, randomness, no-God evolutionary philosophy which provides the basis for the religion of humanism in which ‘anything goes’: homosexuality, nudity, abortion, incest etc. cannot be evil, for evil does not exist. Or you must choose the absolutes of the Creator God who made everything and therefore has the authority to dictate what is right or wrong for His creation. The choice, therefore, is between the religion of Christianity with the basis of its Gospel in a literal creation, or the religion of humanism with its basis of evolution.”
As the clearly incensed teacher pointed out, this is what the school’s biology teachers are required to teach to a highly diverse, multicultural class of students whose parents (of many faiths and none) have no idea that evangelical, fundamentalist Christian tracts are being taught ‘as science’ in their children’s classroom.
Asked why teaching staff did not refuse to teach the subject, the teacher replied, “Teachers who won’t teach it don’t teach biology the next year.” Pressed on why the matter had not been taken to the QSA for investigation, the teacher alluded to a “culture of fear” in which teachers feel their concerns would be, at best, ignored and, at worst, penalised with a forced transfer.
Without a formal investigation, no one will know the extent to which creationism is being taught as science in Queensland biology classes.
A great leap backwards
The separation of church and state schools is an issue which transcends religious beliefs and political allegiances. It is an issue which should concern mainstream Christians, members of minority faiths and those who follow no religious doctrine.
No particular political party is being singled out on this issue – both Liberal and Labor governments are equally complicit in dismantling Australia’s secular public education system. Nor is this just about religion. Australia’s economic future depends on our kids being able to work with people of all faiths and none. “They are going to have to go into place like China and Indonesia and work in harmony with people with fundamentally different world views,” said Peter Garrigan. A secular education system promotes equity, harmony and tolerance. Hugh Wilson agreed:
“We cannot have it both ways: being a twenty-first st century state in a middle-power nation-state, vying with our Asian neighbours for economic survival and claiming to be a multi-cultural country, whilst also gifting one religion a virtual monopoly on the hearts and souls of our children … Our schools, or at least our public schools, must better reflect our changing community.”
While they pay “lip service” to secularism, governments seem blind to its crucial role in uniting Australia’s highly diverse, multicultural, multi-faith population. Yet, its value was keenly understood in the 1870s – even when the vast majority of Australians were Christians. Indeed, Australia’s public education system was principally devised to overcome the rivalries between Catholic and Protestant faiths with the aim of forging a united nation. As secularism unravels in Australia, deep religious, cultural and social rifts are also developing.
Peter Garrigan said his organisation was extremely concerned by “the ‘non-secular push’ that is reshaping the nature of education in Australia and, by default, reshaping Australian society. One only needs to watch the 6 o’clock news of an evening to witness the underlying change occurring in Australian society.”
In fact, the faith-based task of dismantling Australia’s secular public education system is now so advanced that Professor Marion Maddox called for a “Great Leap Backwards” to the “golden age of secularism.” Maddox, an authority on the intersection of politics and religion in Australia, questioned the judgment of politicians who pander to an “imaginary Christian constituency.” She dismissed claims that Pentecostal mega-churches have the power to sway the vote in their electorates, noting that this “dubious” research is based on some “very strange assumptions.”
Hugh Wilson, Peter Harrison and Peter Garrigan, in particular, called for concerned parents to look more closely into what is happening in their local schools, engage with and interrogate their P&Cs and local chaplaincy committees, join or form action groups and lobby their state and federal members. It is only the voices of parents that will turn the tide. Currently, the voices of parents and teachers are being ignored.
If the welfare of our children doesn’t concern our governments, perhaps they should consider that parents and teachers can deliver far more votes than a fringe group of fundamentalist Christians.
Chrys Stevenson is a writer, historian and blogger.
The National Center for Science Education tries to ensure evolution is taught in schools rather than creationism. Teachers are being pressured not to teach evolution and climate science and need help to deal with the pressure. Climate science is being caught up with domestic politics in the US, with very few Republicans accepting climate science.
‘Steve’ is a name to conjure with for Eugenie Scott, as you’ll hear. She also likes ‘Stephanie’. She was at the AAAS in Vancouver, representing the National Centre for Science Education.
The reports are coming in. We’ve already had three calls from school districts or individual teachers, one from a parent, one from a teacher, one from a school board, actually all three levels, where some advice on handling climate change was requested from us. So our staff are working with those people now.
All the details? Of course not. Science is all about refining your explanations. But those kinds of details about climate science are generally not what a high school or middle school teacher is going to be teaching. They’re going to be teaching the basics. But the basics—that the planet is getting warmer, CO2 is important, human generated CO2 is a biggie—those are the kinds of things that teachers are getting push-back on. And they need help in knowing how to deal with that kind of pressure, and we think we may be able to help them.
The issue seems to be more conservative political ideology and conservative economic ideology as you find among the American libertarians, where the belief is that climate change can’t be happening because if it is happening then the consequences of that will require more centralised government control or economic control, there is a variety of beliefs out there.
So the tendency for people who are very much against centralised government or government control of the economy in various ways is to deny climate change. They will often frame the issue that ‘nobody is going to tell me what kind of car to drive’, so it gets all tied up with American individualism and all sorts of stuff.
And I tell you, Robyn, this is the gift that keeps on giving. I mean, we had a lot of fun poking fun at the creationists…because we had twice as many scientists just with one name…I mean, everybody got the joke. But then word spread and Steves and Stephanies kept coming in over the transom. And pretty soon we had 400 Steves and we had to do a new t-shirt. Then we had 800 Steves and we had to do a new t-shirt. Now I’m very proud to say that a year or two ago we acquired the Kilo Steve. We now have over 1,000 Steves supporting evolution, and I must tell you that the 1,000th Steve is the distinguished botanist from the Tulane University Botanical Garden, Steve Darwin.
Lists of scientists attesting to one or another scientific theory is kind of a dumb idea because that’s not how we do science anyway, that I’ve noticed. You know, you go out, you do the research, you test your explanation, the explanation works or it doesn’t, you reject it, you corroborate it, you build up your explanation. And that’s how we decide whether a scientific explanation works or not. We don’t do it by just attesting and who has the longer list of scientists supporting or not supporting an idea. These lists are silly.