Christmas Carols in Schools: the directive given to Principals

UPDATE as of 8pm December 22nd

Later this afternoon Education Minister, Mr James Merlino, issued a statement via The Australian newspaper, seeking to douse once for all the questions and confusion over whether schools will or will not be allowed to reference God and Jesus Christ in Christmas singing, as of 2016.

I am not interested in the politics being played out between the Government and opposition MPs, but I am concerned about Government overstepping the mark over freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

In his statement, Mr Merlino has reiterated (he made a comment on his website a few days ago) that there is no ban on carols in schools, and he has now specified that songs such as Away in a Manger and O Come all ye faithful, can be sung.  This is most encouraging to hear. I am not sure why it took several days for this clarification to come, but nonetheless, many people will be relieved to hear the news.

This statement is an improvement on and somewhat different to what he said a week earlier, “As with other curriculum decisions, schools will make the decision as to which Christmas carols feature as part of classroom activities.”

Does this mean the end of the matter? Unfortunately no, because  Mr Merlino’s statement is at odds with the Departmental directive sent to school principals. In light of this,  I am requesting that the Minister revise this messy piece of policy, and clarify in writing to schools so that there can be no ambiguity. Better still, why not drop the whole issue and allow schools to return to a practice that has work well for many decades

As I have earlier said, the directive is at best confusing, and a natural reading leaves people sensing that Christian carols are probably not permitted, except for within the very strict parameters of SRI and perhaps the General Religion classes.

The contention now is whether schools will follow Mr Merlino’s comments or will they adhere to the Education Department’s directive.

below is the post I wrote on December 17 with details concerning the directive sent to Principals

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I would prefer to spend this time enjoying the lead up to Christmas, not defending the freedom of children to celebrate Christmas, but unfortunately this is a sign of the times in which we live.

Following on from yesterday’s developments regarding Christmas songs in our schools, I have read a copy of the Government’s directive given to school principals. Below is a screenshot of the most relevant section. The left side describes what is permissible only in a SRI class, and the right hand side outlines what is acceptable as non-SRI activity.

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 1.11.13 pm

Logically, these two lists clash. The directive is clear, songs that praise God or some other deity are strictly prohibited outside SRI. The only exception to this rule are songs considered ‘societally recognised’, but even they are limited to General Religious Instruction. However, the right side column says that Christmas carols are permitted. Which is it?

A generous reading of the directive could conclude that children can keep singing ‘Away in a Manger’ and other songs about Jesus’ birth, but in my view that is not the natural reading of the document.

Education Minister, Mr James Merlino, yesterday commented that Christmas carols can still be sung in our schools, which was I was pleased to hear, but his own Department’s notice to school principals puts this in doubt. Unless of course, his meaning of Christmas Carols is limited to those non-religious festive favourites such as ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’.

I’m curious, what will happen to classic songs like John Lennon’s, ‘Imagine’ ,which is often sung at Christmas time. Are anti-God lyrics ok for our children to sing?

One thing is clear from the directive, members of the community can no longer be invited to help schools in their Christmas celebrations, which is sad given how most people appreciate these ties with community groups.

At best this policy is ambiguous (perhaps deliberately so), and that is evident from the disparate interpretations being proffered by various MPs and even schools.

For me, reading the directive raises more questions:

  1. Is a ‘societally recognised’ song permitted to be sung at a Christmas celebration outside of General Religious classes?
  2. By Christmas Carols, are songs about Jesus, the Bible, and God permitted in school celebrations? For example, ‘Joy to the World’ and ‘Silent Night’.

If the answer to these questions is yes, and many Victorians will be encouraged to hear this, I would then ask Mr Merlino and the Education Department to clarify the confusion for schools, in writing. Better still, I recommend that the directive be revised to support these important clarifications.

What do others think?

The end of secular education?

The Age has published an article that every Australian ought to read, for the implications of what has been written could forever change the face of Australian education and society.

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Photo: Nick Moir. Taken from The Age

 

 

Anthony Bergin and Clare Murphy from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, have argued that we must give away the idea that we are a secular nation and have secular education, in order to introduce a program into schools that teaches students about religions. Berlin and Murphy have recognised that some young Muslims in our country are being ‘radcalised’, and key to prevention they believe is teaching religions in our schools.

“Our future is as a multi-faith nation. It is better to speak of Australia not as a secular society, but rather a civil society where there’s freedom of religion and separation of religion and state.

Education ministries speak about secular education because of the mantra “free, secular and compulsory”. But it’s time to change the discourse; why call it “secular instruction” when teaching about the histories, beliefs and practices of the major world religions, as well as the role and function of religion in society, is simply “educational” and should be seen as a normal part of the curriculum.”

I want to affirm Anthony Bergin and Clare Murphy’s aim to prevent future attacks. I agree that there is a threat being realised with young Muslims becoming ‘radicalised’, and we need to find ways to avert this evil pathway. But I am  concerned by the answer they offer.

First, is it the role of Government to teach religion?

This is one of the reasons why Church groups were invited into schools to teach SRI. Society had acknowledged the role of Christianity and thus believed in giving students opportunity to understand its basic beliefs and practices, but these half hour lessons were optional and not taught by teachers.

Is it really wise for the Government to step-in to the role of teaching religion? Do we want that?

The state school that my children attend have a set of values. These values are taught and encouraged, and they do so effectively without need for a curriculum on world religions.

Secondly, there is no neutral theological ground. This is one of grave misnomers that secularists pontificate; they see themselves as religiously neutral and therefore objective, but that is no more true than there being fairies living in my back garden. The worldview one holds inevitably informs and skews the way we understand alternative worldviews. Anthony Bergin and Clare Murphy offer a clear example of this failure:

“Teaching about the role of religion in society and in the creation of social unity might help students distinguish between religion and ideology.”

Outlining the difference between Islam as a faith and Islamism as a political ideology could help young people make sense of the way fundamentalist and literalist interpretations of religions become political movements, some of which turn violent. Teaching about religion could also assist in countering right-wing extremism by reducing the fear of difference.”

The reality is by far more complex. There are Muslims who would accept the above statement, but many would not and with warrant. Separating theology from ideology fails to grasp the very nature of Islam, and ignores the teaching of the Koran and the Hadiths (see this piece in The Atlantic). What Bergin and Murphy have done is erroneously imposed onto Islam, a view of religion that derives from Enlightenment and Kantian constructs.

Bergin and Murphy also include this strange paragraph, which further evidences their failure to understand religion, and so provides another reason why we must be  careful about introducing any religious course into schools.

“In Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews has ordered special religious instruction classes to be held outside school time from next year, and replaced in school hours with content on world histories, cultures, faith and ethics. We don’t know what’s  taught in the religious classes of Muslim schools, just as we don’t know what’s  taught in the Rudolf Steiner, evangelical Christian and Brethren schools.” 

I am not sure whether Bergin and Murphy are attempting a moment of political correctness or whether they genuinely believe that the SRI program and Christian schools are also dangerous. Either way, mentioning them in this context is poor form; there is simply no parallel between what is happening amongst some young Muslims and with Christians teaching students the Bible.

Bergin and Murphy’s own ideological agenda comes into the open when the say,

‘Providing students with the basic principles of major world religions in their formative years would provide a safe space for students to raise questions about religion that may be uncomfortable, but which require answers from a responsible and open mentor, and are better addressed sooner rather than later. It would assist them to engage meaningfully in a conversation about religious identity and celebrate religious diversity.’

To what extent should our children be taught to ‘celebrate religious diversity’? This is hardly a theologically neutral statement. There is a sense in which we want our children to recognise the reality of religious diversity, and to respect people who hold different views (Christians will take it further and say we should love them), but celebrate? Certainly, we should be thankful that we live in a society where freedom of religion exists, and we can celebrate that, but the word is loaded and can assume that all religions have the same merit or veracity. In other words, any course that teaches the sameness of religions fails theology 101 and insults the people who hold to their faith.

Thirdly, on a practical note, my understanding is that where students are being ‘radicalised’ in schools, it is in Islamic schools and not the State system. In other words, the course  is made redundant because it won’t reach the people it is designed to influence.

I don’t want to see the end of secular education in this country.  Indeed, it is my Christian theology that convinces me about the separation of church and state, not its absence.

Bergin and Murphy’s proposal is rash and it will remove one of the fundamental building blocks of Australian society, namely the separation of church and state. They have admitted that this so, but they believe the cost is worth it. My sense though is that they are falling into the fear trap that ISIL is setting around the world; they want us to change our ways, they want us to turn on each other and to restrict freedoms.

It is not the role of Government to teach religion. I recognise that the issues are incredibly complex and we must do something but this proposal is thwart with problems. Are we really willing to sacrifice secular education? I pray not.

The non-controversial controversial program in our pre-schools

In August this year the Daniel Andrews Government banned SRI classes from Victorian Schools. Despite the fact that this has been a valued program for many decades, and that many schools are still keen to give space for this 1/2 hour weekly lesson, the Government caved into pressure from various lobby groups. Replacing this opt-in program will be a compulsory ethics/well-being/religious curriculum. Whilst announcing that this program will run from the start 2016,  the Government is yet to provide any details of its content and who will teach it. Indeed, schools remain in the dark as to what is happening.

Today, The Age has reported that ACCESS Ministries are now offering a program in Victorian pre-schools, called Explore Christianity.

FIRIS have notified their supporters on facebook, saying

“SPECIAL RELIGIOUS INSTRUCTION – COMING TO A KINDERGARTEN AND CHILDCARE CENTRE NEAR YOU!

ACCESS have now discovered a new mission field – they have transferred their proselytizing to a softer market.

They are like the Gecko, who loses its tail, only to grow another one back again. They have reinvented themselves and found another way to get to the children.

FIRIS has known about this for some time, and the VIC government was first notified about this from us back in May.

It appears that now very young children will be segregated by religion and parents who object to their children being indoctrinated while at child care will need to accept this segregation as the norm, or find another centre.

The government has been taken offguard by ACCESS’ metamorphosis and will have to either choose to deal with it – or look the other way.

The obvious concerns are:

* Proselytising

* Treats offered as an incentive to children

* Religious segregation of very young children

* The opt out nature of the program

  • Adequate informed consent being provided to parents”

I agree that any program must have transparency, and provide adequate information for parents, and it should have  either an opt-in or opt-out clause. These things are sensible and appear to be in place already.

But even if all of these  ‘concerns’ were fully met, history gives reason to suspect that FIRIS will keep pressing for this program to be shut down.

Given that, let’s look at these important facts that The Age reported today:

  1. Parents asked the Emmanuel Early Learning Centre to introduce this program and the Centre management agreed.
  2. The overwhelming majority of families are participating. After receiving consent forms, only 3 families chose to opt-out their children.
  3. The program teaches, “Christian values and beliefs, in addition to stories from the Bible.” In other words, it is teaching they very things that a program about Christianity should teach.
  4. Volunteers who run the program are accredited by ACCESS Ministries, in accord with strict requirements that have been set by the Education Department for SRI teachers in schools.

Pre-empting any call to close down the program, Minister for Families and Children Jenny Mikakos said to the The Age that, early childhood services operated independently, and any “decision on offering religious education as part of a service provider’s program is a decision for each individual provider and parents of children attending the service”.

It will be interesting to see what and if any pressure that the Government will try to apply to these early childhood centres. As it stands, they are providing a program within the law, based on parental interest and request, and with substantial by-in from both the Centre and its families.

Where is the controversy?

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Photo from The Age (Nov 10): Joe Armao

Dr Paul Ehrlich accusing Scripture classes of child abuse on QandA

Last night on QandA, guest panelist, Dr Paul Ehrlich (Professor of Biological studies at Stanford University), made an astonishing allegation regarding religious instruction in schools.

“We did, but we didn’t have child abuse required in those days. We didn’t have any religious instructions in the schools,” Dr Ehrlich said.

“Did you just say religious instruction is child abuse,” Jones asked the outspoken panellist.

“That’s what Richard Dawkins and lots of other people have said; that you teach people details about non-existent supernatural monsters and then behave in reaction to what you think they are telling you.”

“That’s child abuse. You don’t raise your kids that way,” Dr Ehrlich said.

Audience members then responded with applause.

I have heard similar comments before, made by angry and uninformed persons, but not by an intellectual and person of public standing. We have come to expect these types of accusations by supporters of FIRIS and others, but do the allegations have warrant? If this is a case of name calling, it is truly bad taste and Dr Ehrlich should apologise. If, however, the allegation is serious, action must be taken by both Government and police, for child abuse is rightly deemed appalling and never acceptable.

According to the Department of Human Services (DHS) child abuse is defined in the following ways:

“Child abuse is an act by parents or caregivers which endangers a child or young person’s physical or emotional health or development. Child abuse can be a single incident, but usually takes place over time.

In Victoria, under the Children Youth and Families Act 2005 a child or young person is a person under eighteen years of age.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse occurs when a child suffers or is likely to suffer significant harm from an injury inflicted by a child’s parent or caregiver. The injury may be inflicted intentionally or may be the inadvertent consequence of physical punishment or physically aggressive treatment of a child. The injury may take the form of bruises, cuts, burns or fractures.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse occurs when a person uses power or authority over a child to involve the child in sexual activity and the child’s parent or caregiver has not protected the child. Physical force is sometimes involved. Child sexual abuse involves a wide range of sexual activity. It includes fondling of the child’s genitals, masturbation, oral sex, vaginal or anal penetration by a penis, finger or other object, or exposure of the child to pornography.

Emotional abuse

Emotional Abuse occurs when a child’s parent or caregiver repeatedly rejects the child or uses threats to frighten the child. This may involve name calling, put downs or continual coldness from the parent or caregiver, to the extent that it significantly damages the child’s physical, social, intellectual or emotional development.

Neglect

Neglect is the failure to provide the child with the basic necessities of life such as food, clothing, shelter, medical attention or supervision, to the extent that the child’s health and development is, or is likely to be, significantly harmed.”

Do Scripture classes fall into any of these categories? What are the facts?

-Scripture classes are voluntary, with parents having the choice to opt-in their children or not.

-In the case of Christian SRI, these classes teach students basic Christian beliefs by reading and thinking about the Bible.

-Students are free to explore and ask questions.

-No one is compelled or forced to believe the ideas that are communicated, although students are encouraged to use their minds and hearts as they consider the big questions of life.

– The worldview taught in SRI is about truth, love, hope and kindness. Everything that child abuse is, is opposed by these programs.

The reality is, there is no substance to Dr Ehrlich’s allegations; certainly not in the case of Christian instruction classes. I cannot speak on behalf of other religions as I don’t have experience there, but no doubt they will respond for themselves.

Such a misuse of language may garner rapturous cheers from anti-religious supporters, but it contributes nothing to wise and constructive discourse.  In fact, Dr Ehrlich’s comments are incredibly irresponsible, and no doubt victims of child abuse would be justified for being hurt and outraged by them. 

Imagine the public outcry if a Christian panelist on QandA said that refusing children the opportunity to explore theism was akin to child abuse? What would Dr Ehrlich think if a person on national television accused him of child abuse? My point is, his comments are not mere rhetoric, they are allegations of utmost seriousness, and Dr Ehrlich, if he has any intellectual and moral integrity, should withdraw them.

Bronwyn Chin’s letter

In light of the vitriol being aimed toward Michael Jensen’s book, You: An Introduction, and its reference to a letter penned by Bronwyn Chin, I thought it helpful to publish Bronwyn’s letter in full (which I’ve taken from the AFES website). That way, people can read for themselves.

In Australia we rarely talk about death, other than a few words of praise for the deceased person and a few wishful words such as, ‘we’ll see you again’ or ‘they are now with the angels’. In the face of death Bronwyn writes about the awfulness of her condition and of the hope that Jesus promises. For Christians these words can bring great comfort, and to non Christians they are a challenge; what is your answer to sickness and death?

 

Article written by Bronwyn Chin: June 2012 for the ‘Equal But Different’ journal

I thank God for the gift of Cancer!

I don’t like being in pain and I don’t like having terminal pancreatic cancer. I would like to grow old with my husband and see my kids grow up. But God appears to have a better plan. I know that he is faithful. His plans are the best and do not revolve around me. Acts 13:36 says: “For when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation he fell asleep …”. When God has done what he wants through me, I will die in his perfect timing.

Why has God given me cancer? Maybe it is to make me repent of my wrongs and turn to Jesus – it has certainly done this. Maybe it is to make me talk more to my friends and family about Jesus – it has certainly done this. Maybe it is for reasons way beyond my understanding – it is certainly at least this. All I know is that God has given me this gift of cancer to use for his glory. We pray daily for the cancer to miraculously go away. But if God chooses to say no, we can trust him nonetheless.

It is still hard to really grasp that I am only here for a very little while. But as the bible teaches:

“All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” 1 Peter 1:24

When I was suddenly diagnosed in Dec 2009, it was a total shock. I had no idea that I was sick. My life at that time involved being a busy wife, a mother of four active children (aged 9,12,14,15), and a part time General Practitioner.

Widespread pancreatic cancer has a very bad reputation and my oncologist originally gave me a prognosis of 3 to 6 months to live. However God has had other ideas and my cancer has partially responded to chemotherapy. For the last two and a half years I have received chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and surgery, and lived with ill health, knowing I have a time bomb inside. My family have become experts at coping with me regularly vomiting, and being bed bound at times from the different treatments.

As the cancer keeps spreading throughout my body I am very aware that Jesus is my Lord and Saviour in whom I can depend, and that all other ground is sinking sand.

I am so grateful to God for everything. I am thankful for who God is, his majesty, his splendour, and his promises. I am thankful for my family, friends and life.

I am so thankful to God for the resurrection of Jesus which means I will have victory over death and don’t need to fear pain or the dying process. It is such a comfort to read:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

‘The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’. 1 Corinthians 15:55-57

As I get sicker and spend a lot of time lying down in pain, I sometimes wonder what use I am to God and what he wants me to do … now. I miss being able to do things. I actually miss physically being able to tidy up! And I miss the joy of serving my husband and kids more.

What is hard is coping with chronic pain and deteriorating health while still navigating the physical and emotional challenges involved with 4 children and a busy husband.

Another challenge is “not knowing”. It is impossible to plan. Last year I had 5 hospital admissions. I have no idea what condition I will be in 6 weeks, let alone whether I will even be alive.

However, I am just so thankful for God’s guidance in the bible. The bible is so clear about what God wants me to do now, even as I get sicker.

‘Be joyful always; pray continuously; give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus’ 1 Thessalonians 5:16

God is so clear. This is what God wants me to do now. Thank him. As I write, I have just returned from a visit to my oncologist. He is urging us not to receive any more chemotherapy (or other treatment) out of compassion because (in his view) it only has a 10% chance of treating the cancer and will greatly erode the quality of life that I currently enjoy. It is hard to stop and have no treatment. It feels like giving up. But I still know I can thank God.

Leaving my husband and 4 gorgeous children grieves me greatly (and makes me cry every time I think about it, even as I write now). However, I know God will take care of them. Please pray that each of them will continue to trust God into eternity.

So I thank God for this gift of cancer because he is good and he is using it for his purposes. The plans of the Lord are perfect even if I don’t know the reasons for everything. All I know is that soon I will be with the Lord forever because Jesus alone has saved me through his death and resurrection.

I hope to see you all there!