April 19, 2006
SMALLER religious groups have welcomed a proposal to change laws that would allow parents to decide who offers spiritual instruction to their children in schools.
The changes, to be enacted this year in Queensland state schools, came despite protests from Christian churches worried about marginalising religion in schools.
But groups such as the Hare Krishnas say giving parents and students wider alternatives would encourage tolerance.
Hare Krishna teacher Taraka Deve Dasi said Hare Krishna classes were already held in some schools.
Ms Deve Dasi said exposing children to different religions would allow them to see that people from all cultures can be devoted to God.
“It makes people more open-minded to other people’s practices,” she said.
Under the existing system, all state school children attend religious education classes unless their parents write to the school exempting them.
When the legislation, due to go to Parliament later this year, comes into effect, children will only attend classes if parents write requiring them to do so.
Some groups are concerned that it could lead to a phasing out of religious education.
Other groups think the changes will open students to a wider range of belief systems.
Muslim community spokesman Mohamad Abdalla said a larger variety of religious education within schools would generate more acceptance and tolerance.
“We need children to become more aware in a multicultural and pluralistic society like Australia,” Mr Abdalla said.
But, he said, care should be taken with the definition of religious education.
“Religious education teaches the existence of a god, it is not just a way of life,” Dr Abdalla said. “I would draw the line at atheists or humanists who don’t believe in a god. And we need to distinguish between religions and cults too.”
Humanist Maria Proctor, who wants to teach humanist values at Wishart State School, agreed that the teaching of the humanist belief system was not religious education.
But she said teaching humanist values would be an alternative for state school students already withdrawn from religion classes.
“We’re non-religious but we are progressive and would be examining ethics and values and social issues,” Ms Proctor said. “It’s discriminatory not to allow us to offer a secular alternative if religious education is going to continue in schools.”
Church of Scientology spokesman Nick Broadhurst said his church would be happy to supply volunteers to teach the basic tenets of Scientology if there were demand from parents.
But, he said, he was concerned the changes might see children slip through school without any form of religious education.
“I would be worried that if they didn’t think about religious concepts when they were young they may not do it,” Mr Broadhurst said.
“Scientologists are Christian, Muslim and Hindu,” he said.
The Opposition has said it will oppose the laws and MP Fiona Simpson said the changes could see philosophies including satanism and witchcraft taught in schools, despite assurances that extreme groups would be kept out.
“There’s a danger this will see religious education marginalised,” Ms Simpson said.
Premier Peter Beattie has said the changes would enhance the rights of parents.
He said religious extremists, crackpots and lunatics would be kept out of Queensland schools.