On Thursday 24 July, The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) communicated with its supporters about a ban on the distribution or display of religious material, including bibles, by any person at Victorian government schools.
ACL also raised awareness about the issue of the prohibition on prayer groups and lunchtime bible studies evident in the ban on prayer groups, youth groups, clubs, information sessions, or workshops in the Special Religious Instruction (SRI) policy.
Distribution and display of materials
At that time, Clause 9 of the then Ministerial Direction 141 (effective from 14 July 2014) stated:
“(1) A principal must not permit material to be distributed or displayed at a school if that material has the effect of promoting any particular practice, denomination or sect.”
Clause 9 was explained in the Special Religious Instruction Policy (version effective as at 14 July 2014) as follows:
“principals must not permit material...to be distributed or displayed at a Government school if that material has the effect of promoting any particular religious practice, denomination or sect. This includes the distribution of religious texts (e.g. bibles) by any person...”
The effect of Clause 9 of MD 141 was that a student would be prevented from showing or giving to another student a Bible, Koran or verses from these texts or religiously themed book or music DVD’s-even in the schoolyard. A student would not be able to have on his or her desk a diary with a Bible verse or religious image on it.
Student Initiated Activities
Furthermore, the Special Religious Instruction Policy, current at 19 July, appeared to restrict student initiated activities at schools to personal prayer. The policy prohibited lunchtime prayer groups, youth groups, clubs, information sessions or workshops.
The paragraph titled Religious activities outside SRI in the policy document stated:
SRI cannot and does not take the form of prayer groups, youth groups, clubs, information sessions, or workshops. Legislation requires that Government schools are secular, and the only exception to secular education in government schools is SRI delivered in accordance with the Act, MD141 and this policy. Any other forums or activities as noted above, would constitute promotion of specific religions in schools outside SRI, and are not permitted. For the avoidance of doubt, students engaging in prayer in observation of their religion at lunchtimes is not SRI as there is no element of ‘instruction’. Such prayer cannot be led, conducted by or at the instruction of staff or parents/visitors/volunteers. For further advice please contact the Legal Division.
After the Victorian Christian Lawyers Society and the Australian Christian Lobby correctly identified the issue, ACL launched a Make A Stand campaign creating widespread awareness and facilitating the process of you writing personalised emails to Members of Parliament.
Between Thursday 24 July and Thursday 31 July 1509 emails were sent through MakeaStand.org.au The freedom of religion issue was discussed in numerous churches across Australia on Sunday 26 July.
Your emails to MP’s, the Minister for Education and Premier Napthine have been crucial in getting the message through to the Government.
The Minister’s radio interview on 31 July 2014
On Thursday 31 July, the Minister for Education the Hon. Martin Dixon MP announced on ABC radio that he had directed his department to withdraw the elements of the Policy that were the subject of the Complaint. The Minister said his department over-reached in the drawing of the policy that addressed lunchtime activities of students.
The Minister also stated that one student can give another a bible at a school.
Breaking News – Just in
On Tuesday 19th August, The Minister amended Clause 9 of Ministerial Direction 141 to read as follows.
1. Distribution and display of religious material
(1) A principal must not permit an accredited and approved instructor to distribute at a school material that has the effect of promoting any particular religious practice, denomination or sect, unless it is a part of an authorised special religious instruction program and the principal is satisfied that the material has been approved by the instructor’s organisation.
(2) For the avoidance of doubt, nothing in clause 9(1) prevents students from distributing religious materials, displaying religious materials on their person or personal belongings or bringing religious materials to a Victorian government school.
The amendment restricts the application of Clause 9(1) to SRI instructors and to material outside of the approved SRI program.
The Minister stated in the amended Ministerial Direction that Clause 9(1) does not prevent students from distributing religious materials, displaying religious materials on their person or personal belongings or bringing religious materials to a Victorian government school.
Also, on Thursday 21 August, the Minister approved a new Special Religious Instruction policy which contained the following statements:
Freedom of religion
Students and teachers have the rights to freedom of religion and belief, freedom of expression and freedom of association under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006.
Students can organise and participate in voluntary religious activities outside of the school program because such activities are not part of the curriculum provided by the State in government schools. Such activities cannot be promoted by the school.
Other Religious Activity
Government schools will provide a secular education and not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect; be open to adherents of any philosophy, religion or faith (section 1.2.2 of the Act); and must support and promote freedom of religion, speech and association (section 1.2.1 of the Act).. Education in government schools must be secular and not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect (section 2.2.10 of the Act). This does not prohibit the voluntary activities of students outside the school program as they are not part of the curriculum provided by the State.
Subject to the above principles, nothing in the Act, MD 141 or this policy prevents:
a) recognised sacred texts being displayed or distributed at a school;
b) students displaying and distributing material that has the effect of promoting any particular religious practice, including religious books, music, DVD’s etc;
c) students from establishing and meeting (outside the hours set aside for instruction) in groups which promote a particular religion, such as prayer groups, youth groups, clubs, information sessions, or workshops, or from advertising such groups.
d) outside speakers or facilitators from visiting such groups on the same basis that applies to other non-religious student groups. Principals should refer to the Department’s policy on developing a Visitors Policy, see: Visitors in Schools;
e) students engaging in individual or group prayer during school hours, where it is in accordance with the requirements of their religion;
f) students dressing according to the requirements of their faith. Principals should refer to the Department’s policies on Developing and Reviewing Dress Codes and Dress Code Exemptions, which promote an inclusive approach to religious diversity, for guidance on how to accommodate religious requirements within a school’s dress code. See: Developing and Reviewing Dress Codes, Dress Code Exemptions.
Other improvements in New Special Religious Instruction Policy
It is notable that outside speakers or facilitators visiting such students voluntary religious groups are expressly allowed under the SRI policy. Students in these groups are permitted to invite guests to speak with them, just like any other student club or group – with the permission of their school (taken from Government “standard response “ document(21 August 2014) )
It is very important that you thank the Minister for Education.
The Victorian Government has this week stated that it continues to support the principle that freedoms of religion, association and expression must not be impeded.
Please email the Minister for Education the Hon. Martin Dixon MP [email protected] to thank him for his commitment to freedom of religion and for restoring these freedoms in Victorian government schools.
Please also email Andrew Ronalds MP [email protected] to thank him for his detailed advocacy on this issue and in assisting the Minister of Education to bring this matter to an excellent conclusion.