Thursday, November 15, 2012

Appeal Planned In Case Upholding Religious Instruction In Australian State's Schools

The Australian reports today that parents will appeal a decision handed down last month upholding the Special Religious Instruction program in the public schools in the Australian state of Victoria. Religious bodies offer 30 minutes per week of classes. Most of the classes, offered in two-thirds of the state's schools, are offered by the Christian group ACCESS ministries. Parents can choose whether or not their children will attend. Last month in Aitken v. State of Victoria – Department of Education & Early Childhood Development, (VCAT, Oct. 18, 2012), the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal rejected a challenge by parents of children at 3 primary schools who contended that the way the program is offered amounts to direct discrimination against their children in violation of the Equal Opportunity Acts of 1995 and 2010. In those schools, most of the SRI classes were Christian, but one was Bah'ai. The court held:
Parliament authorised the provision of SRI in Victoria more than 60 years ago. That law was re-enacted 6 years ago. Parliament has given parents the opportunity to permit their children to attend SRI in the normal school hours, in schools where it is provided. Instruction may be given in different religions. SRI is not compulsory and parents have a choice whether their children attend. If they do not, they engage in useful, non-curriculum activities under teachers’ supervision. The SRI program has been implemented by teachers at the three schools in a thoughtful manner. Attendance by a child at SRI does not, necessarily, indicate that the child, or the parents, hold any particular religious beliefs. The evidence did not establish that the children, who did not attend SRI at the three schools, were treated in any discriminatory manner.
Plaintiff Sophie Aitken, speaking of the decision to appeal, said:
I would like to see a situation where all children receive proper teacher-run education about different religions and world views, as a way to enhance understanding and tolerance between people. Instead we have this divisive situation where children as young as five are being separated based on their religious beliefs.