Billboard targets religious discrimination in Victorian schools

The new school year is being welcomed by a billboard targeting church missionaries for still being in State schools.

The billboard went up Thursday, February 02, 2012 near the corner of Greenway St. and Manningham Rd. in Bulleen, Victoria. Responsible for the strongly worded message is a group of parents, called Fairness in Religions in School (FIRIS) who want the State Minister of Education to sever all links between schools and the controversial parachurch: ACCESS Ministries.

The billboard says “State Schools are not Church Playgrounds” and “Special Religious Instruction Divides our Children”. FIRIS says the billboard aims at alerting the public to unfair policy that gives an “open door”, and also funds a church ministry to use curriculum time to instruct children in specific religious beliefs.

“This is the Minister’s preference as the law imposes no such requirement,” says Campaign Chairman Tim Heasley.

ACCESS is the parachurch controlled by 12 protestant churches that made headlines attracted last year when its CEO, Evonne Paddison, urged church congregations to “make disciples” by adopting “missional attitudes” in Victoria’s State Schools.

The billboard comes in advance of a case being put by parents before the Victorian Administrative and Civil Tribunal (VCAT) which aims to force Mr. Dixon to bring the policy into line with the expectations of Victorian parents and end the exception the policy allows to a guiding principle of Victoria Schools, “secular education”.

Said Mr. Heasley: “We would like to see religion taught in a fair way that reflects Australia’s multi-cultural commitments and we’re asking our schools to do this in a way that does not violate the `secular principle’ of public education. This needs to be done by closing the door to activists from all religions who want to use our schools to get at kids”.

“Our State Schools are not Church Playgrounds and it is deeply concerning to me as an Australian and as a parent, that I should need to put up a billboard to make this case to the Minister of Education. The Minister could easily change this policy, and that is what we intend to see him do”.

The policy by which church volunteers come into the school day and take up part of the curriculum is not supported by the Australian Education Union. The Victorian branch passed a resolution calling for an end to the policy.

“Parents should never be put in a position of having to remove their child from a church-run program in a state school, yet here we are at the start of the school year and policy to favor this ministry rolls on”, said Mr Heasley.

The billboard, funded by donations to FIRIS, and designed by a parent, is based on what the designer’s six year old daughter experienced at her school, as a result of what many parents agree forces a choice between making their kids feel different or having them ministered to by ACCESS volunteers.

Another parent, Julia Brotherton, said in her case, even the choice between two evils wasn’t possible, because the schools can’t reasonably be expected to deal with equitably with the problems the policy creates. She says, “despite opting my child out at the start of the year, I discovered she was in fact attending Christian Religious Instruction by ACCESS Ministries. When I asked the school why this was, they explained how hard it was for the school to administrate the system and that ultimately it was up to my 6 year old to tell her teacher she was not meant to be there”!

Ms. Brotherton, said that it was the policy and not the school where change needed to occur. “The schools are doing the best they can, it is obvious that the policy is designed to induce parents to go along, even if they don’t want to. Its a political problem, that infringes on my rights as a parent. This is not fair to families, and its not fair to teachers, and it shouldn’t be on the principal’s to do list”.

FIRIS is a parent-run group supporting the upcoming parents case in VCAT. The case, which is being run by the law firm Holding Redlich, will be heard on 1 March, and will be the first time that this policy has been given a true hearing in an impartial setting.

Mr. Heasley said that the case before VCAT will show how SRI hurts families, but also fully explain the policy undermines the very principles of public education in Victoria. “One of the non negotiable values Australians hold is that our schools should not discriminate between children according to their parents’ religions or lack thereof. This policy is designed to do exactly this and gives church groups say over part of the curriculum. We hope to end this policy in 2012”.

“ACCESS Ministries instructs children with what amounts to a Sunday School type program that includes prayer and has no comparative religious component. It is totally out of step with the state school curriculum”, said Heasley.

FIRIS believes religion is a family matter, and that there are a diversity of approaches families choose with respect to religion. It is an obligation on the Minister of Education to prevent discrimination on religious grounds, to uphold the secular principles written into our constitution, in order to foster citizenship and tolerance in our nation.

For more information check out religioninschool.com

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