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Schools, religion and community diversity

By Tim Mander - posted Friday, 17 July 2009

From reading Hugh Wilson’s article (On Line Opinion, July 9, 2009), one would get the impression that students in Queensland state schools have to endure regular, large doses of unwelcome, imposed religion. Is that really an accurate picture of our state schools? Perhaps anyone who is worried should ask students and find out how many of them think that Queensland state schools are dominantly religious environments. Is Mr Wilson’s assessment based on reality or is it a distortion based on his own anti-religious philosophy? Does the mere presence of anything religious in state schools, regardless of the size of its contribution or its boundaries of operation, cause a concern for the majority of parents?

Hugh Wilson makes it clear that he stands for secularism. The Macquarie Dictionary defines secularism as that which “refuses to accept all forms of religious faith and worship”. Groups that promote secularism are entitled to their opinions, but are they entitled to impose those views on a multi-cultural and multi-faith society like Queensland? The majority of Queenslanders are not atheists or agnostics and many religious groups are represented in Queensland community life. It is reasonable that state schools should reflect this very real community diversity.

The adjective “secular” does not always carry a meaning that excludes religion. Theatres, radio and television are said to provide “secular” entertainment, but often these contain religious or spiritual themes. For example, the recent movies Gran Tarino, Doubt and Changeling all have religious content even though they are offered as secular entertainment. Secular activities don’t always reflect the ideals of secularism as a philosophy. The term secular can refer to activities that are expressions of the broader society which may include religious influences as part of the mix. State education in Queensland is secular in that broader sense. While it does not exist to promote religion, it does not treat religion as a subject that should never be mentioned.


Religion plays a significant role for many people in Australian society and throughout the world and it should have some place in education. There are people who claim that all religious expression and input should be denied to students in schools, even when students and parents seek such support and guidance. I believe that religious education and spiritual guidance should not be imposed on the unwilling, but should be made available to students in state schools under careful constraints and guidelines.

It is worth noting that students in state schools are sometimes exposed to atheistic viewpoints. While I don’t agree with atheism, it is reasonable to expect that school students (especially in the more senior years) might face the questions raised by atheism. Even students who embrace religious faith will usually have a stronger faith for having faced those questions. I don’t believe however, that students should be exposed to only one side of the argument. Students should be able to have access to a range of views so they are able to weigh up these things for themselves.

Those who argue for the exclusion of all religion from schools seek to have students blinkered and their education censored so that they are only exposed to a narrow range of views. In some quarters the validity of atheism is just assumed, so while proof is required of other positions, atheism is assumed to be a fact. The fact is that atheism is simply a belief.

While Christianity has the largest following of religions in Australia, this is a multi-faith society and adherents of other faiths do have a right to be involved in the state schools where their faith communities are educated. A Buddhist chaplaincy service does operate in Queensland schools. All groups working in schools should respect each other and co-operate to seek the best outcomes for students.

Education Queensland has guidelines for its staff and all groups who work in state schools. It is important that these be followed. Hugh Wilson gave a number of examples where he believes that these guidelines were not correctly followed in regards to religious activities and so he argues that religion should be banned from state schools. Is alleged non-compliance with guidelines grounds for total removal of a valued program?

I’m sure that guidelines for sport in state schools are also not followed on occasions. Does that mean school sport should be banned? There are few endeavours in life where all the guidelines are followed all the time. If guidelines for spiritual and religious activities in state schools have not always been followed, then the parties concerned need to be more diligent in future or perhaps the guidelines need refinement.


Finally, Mr Wilson seems to think that it is a serious problem that adults be able to enter state schools and be mentors for students. Obviously care should be taken that these mentoring roles be restricted to suitable people who are carefully supervised and who work within clear guidelines, but it seems strange to imply that the availability of mentors is a bad thing. There is an overwhelming body of opinion that affirms the value of mentors, especially for children and adolescents.

School Principals welcome suitable community-minded individuals (religious or otherwise), who sacrificially give their time to make a constructive contribution to the wellbeing of our children. Religious movements of all descriptions have had a long history of providing mentors or chaplains for contexts like hospitals, the armed forces, workplaces, sporting teams and retirement villages. Such services are usually not imposed, but they are made available and the people who access them find them valuable. Why should they be denied to school students?

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About the Author

Tim Mander is the chief executive of Scripture Union Queensland, Australia’s largest employer of school chaplains in government schools.

Tim was a professional rugby league referee with the National Rugby League (NRL) for 14 years, refereeing over 300 first grade games as well as a dozen international games in countries all over the world. He refereed the two Telstra Premiership Grand Finals in 2005 and 2006, and was named International Referee of the Year for 2005. He has since retired from on-field refereeing, but he continues to serve the NRL as a video referee. Tim was named Queensland Father of the Year in 2005. He and his wife Gayle and have three adult children. They live in Brisbane, Queensland.

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