Religious Instruction in schools and “soliciting”

Press reports today (e.g.”Qld govt to review religious education“, Courier-Mail, 7 June 2016) indicate that a school Principal in Queensland has written to parents at his school indicating that he is cancelling the usual Religious Instruction (RI) classes, on the basis that he has discovered the lessons involve “proselytising” (a term which he says refers to “soliciting a student… to change their religious affiliation”). The Queensland Government in response to the press reports has indicated that it will be reviewing materials used to ensure they comply with relevant rules.

Does this mean a radical change has recently taken place in a program which has been operating for many years allowing parents to send their children to RI (elsewhere sometimes called “Scripture” or “Special Religious Education”) classes for a short period each week? Actually, no. It seems that the Principal has misread the relevant provisions, and the Queensland Government really doesn’t need to react to the misleading interpretation.

Religious Instruction in Queensland schools

First, some background. RI or SRE is offered in most States and Territories of Australia, and has been for many years. I gave some general background to this in a previous post when the SRE materials in the State of NSW were under challenge- see here and a follow-up here. The usual practice is for the law to allow representatives of various religions to come into classrooms once a week, often for a 30 minute lesson, to teach about their religious faith. The classes are voluntary, parents of course being entitled to not send their children along. But the content of the classes is not determined by the relevant State authorities- it is left up to the discretion of the religious teachers.

This same framework is in place in Queensland, with minor variations. Under the Education (General Provisions) Act 2006 (Qld), s 76(1) provides:

76 Religious instruction in school hours

(1) Any minister of a religious denomination or society, or an accredited representative of a religious denomination or society, which representative has been approved by the Minister for the purpose, shall be entitled during school hours to give to the students in attendance at a State school who are members of the denomination or society of which the person is a minister or the accredited representative religious instruction in accordance with regulations prescribed in that behalf during a period not exceeding 1 hour in each week on such day as the principal of that school appoints. (emphasis added)

The slightly odd variation is that under s 76(2) “special Bible lessons” may also be provided by the school itself, although under s 76(4) such classes are “not to include any teaching in the distinctive tenets or doctrines of any religious denomination, society or sect”. But s 76(4) is not a qualification on s 76(1), which assumes that instruction provided by religious ministers or representatives will in fact be in accordance with the doctrines of that religion.

This provision is supplement by more detailed regulations in the Education (General Provisions) Regulation 2006 (Qld), where among other things reg 27 provides:

27 Authorised religious instruction

A minister of religion or an accredited representative may give only religious instruction approved by the religious denomination or religious society the minister or accredited representative represents.

So the clear assumption is that materials to be used in RI are to be those approved by the relevant religious group. Parents, if they send their children to RI classes, know that they are being taught by representatives of the religious group running the classes. However, since in some cases a group may be too small in a particular area to run its own classes, under reg 29 parents may send children to a class other than their own religion, or “students may attend classes arranged for students of more than 1 denomination or society by agreement of the ministers of the denominations or societies concerned”.

This second type of arrangement, where there is a co-operative agreement between different clergy to allow teaching to children from a number of different denominations, lies behind the confusion evident in the decision by the Principal noted today.

The Ban on RI at Windsor State School

The Principal of Windsor State School, Matthew Keong, has written a letter to parents which has been reproduced in the press today (a copy can be seen here.) A number of the statements made in the letter are worthy of comment.

The letter opens by Mr Keong saying that

contrary to my previous understanding, none of the programs used in Religious Education (RI) provided by any faith group are approved or endorsed by the Department of Education and Training.

Clearly this should not have been a surprise to Mr Keong. The legislation previously quoted makes it clear that religious groups, not the Department, determine the content of the teaching given in RI classes.

Mr Keong goes on to say that he has now carefully reviewed the “Connect” resources used in RI at the school. He concludes that the program “contravenes policy that prohibits proselytising”.

Unfortunately, it seems clear that Mr Keong has misread the relevant policy. There is no reference to a prohibition on “proselytising” in the Act or the Regulations. The “policy” he seems to be referring to is a Departmental statement of the way that RI is to be administered, which can be found here, entitled “Religious instruction policy statement”. (It should be noted, of course, that Departmental policy guidelines cannot over-ride the explicit terms of the Act of Parliament and the Regulations made under legislative authority.)

But even reading the policy guidelines, it is clear that they do not apply in the way that Mr Keong has read them. He goes on in his letter to say that “proselytising” means “soliciting  a student for a decision to change their religious affiliation”. And he then says that he views the materials, which call on students to “develop a personal faith in God and Jesus”, as falling within this definition.

But this is just not the case. The policy guidelines contain the following provision on a separate page entitled “Considerations for faith groups establishing and implementing religious instruction“:

Advise religious instructors that they are not to proselytise in a cooperative arrangement.

But what is a “cooperative arrangement”? Earlier on that same page there is a link to this definition of the term:

Cooperative arrangement

When religious leaders of two or more faith groups that have right-of-entry agree to work together to provide religious instruction as joint faith groups.

In other words, this is the sort of arrangement envisaged under reg 29, where ministers agree they will work together to present RI to students from different faith groups. And in those circumstances (not in general classes) the guidelines say that instructors are not to “proselytise”. This explains why the term has such an odd definition. The word is being used to refer to an attempt by a minister from one faith group (say, the Presbyterians) to persuade Anglican students who might be in a “cooperative arrangement” class, to become Presbyterians! That is why the very specific terms of the definition of the term are used:

Proselytising

Soliciting a student for a decision to change their religious affiliation.

The word “affiliation”, in that context, is perfectly apt to describe an attempt to persuade (or “solicit”) a student to change religious groups in a cooperative arrangement. But it is clear that the term used in this specialised sense has nothing to say about material which present a general challenge to follow Jesus. If such is the implication of the teaching authorised by the religious group concerned, then the RI system allows that material to be presented to children. Of course it should not be presented in a  manipulative, dishonest way or with undue pressure. That would clearly be wrong. But that is not what the word means in this particular context.

Proselytising

It seems, in (somewhat extended) conclusion, worth saying a few things about this somewhat odd word which is regularly used in debates on school RI or SRE. As we have seen, the word can be used in different ways in different contexts. Here it is used to refer to changing “denominations” in a “mixed” class.

What does the word generally mean? The Oxford English Dictionary offers the following definition:

“To make, or seek to make, proselytes or converts”.

The noun “proselyte” is used in the Old Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (e.g. in Exodus 12:48) and in the Greek author Philo. It also occurs in the Greek New Testament; the English word is simply a transliteration of the Greek. In Matthew 23:15, as part of a condemnation of the Pharisees, Jesus says:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”

The Greek word is προσήλυτον, which the OED traces back to the aorist stem of προσέρχεσθαι “to come to, approach”. The sense seems to be that this was someone who was “far away” and has now “come to” the new religion. The word is used three times in the book of Acts (2:11, 6:5, and 13:43) to refer to converts to Judaism who had previously been Gentiles.

Does it describe, then, something neutral or something intrinsically wrong? The answer is pretty clear: while in earlier days, especially in the NT in reference to converted Gentiles, it was a reasonably neutral description of someone who had changed from being a Gentile to a Jew, in today’s world this is not a “neutral” activity, it is clearly something which is seen as bad.

An example of a use from 1916 given by the OED (The Times, 3 May) may be helpful:

“Religion is not forced down the men’s throats, nor is there any attempt to proselytize; but there is an effort to make the whole atmosphere such as to appeal to the spiritual side.”

It seems fairly clear that the author thinks that the first phrase is a reasonably close definition of the word, I think- an attempt to “convert” someone in a forceful or overbearing way (we might call this “P1-proselytism”).

Sometimes Christians, understanding this clearly negative sense of the word, have undertaken not to “proselytise” in the bad, P1, sense, still intending to continue sharing the good news of their faith, but knowing that they do not want to do so in overbearing or dishonest or disrespectful ways. In my view, however, this is not a good idea. That is because the word “proselytise” has shifted in modern discourse away from its core meaning being “forcing views down men’s throats”, over to “attempting to persuade someone else of the truth of one’s religion”.

If this more modern definition of the terms is adopted (what we might call “P2-proselytism”), then a rule which denied the ability of religious adherents to ever attempt to persuade others of the truth of their faith would be one which undercut a fundamental aspect of religious freedom. Kirby J in the High Court of Australia, in NABD of 2002 v Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs [2005] HCA 29; (2005) 216 ALR 1; (2005) 79 ALJR 1142, at [121], offered clear support for the view put forward by the European Court of Human Rights in Kokkinakis v Greece (1993) 17 EHRR 397 at 418, where that Court affirmed that religious freedom includes the freedom:

“[T]o manifest one’s religion … not only exercisable in community with others, ‘in public’ and within the circle of those whose faith one shares, but can also be asserted ‘alone’ and ‘in private’; furthermore, it includes in principle the right to try to convince one’s neighbour … through ‘teaching’, failing which … ‘freedom to change [one’s] religion or belief’ … would be likely to remain a dead-letter.”

In short, appropriate and respectful sharing of one’s faith with others is an important religious freedom right. Rather than undertaking not to “proselytise” (an undertaking which may be misunderstood), the best approach would be to come to a more precise agreement about what will not be done; listing the behaviours that will not be tolerated such as “harassment”, “undue pressure”, and “offering material or social inducements”.

Conclusion

To come back to the Queensland situation: the rules set out by the Department do not prohibit RI teachers presenting, in a gracious and age-appropriate way, the claims of the Christian faith to the children whose parents have sent them along for instruction in the tenets of the Christian faith. If those rules did prohibit such an activity, it would be arguable that they went far beyond, and indeed were contradictory to, the provisions of the legislation establishing the scheme, which entrust decisions about the content of lessons to the religious teachers undertaking the instruction. That this is the case is all the more a reason for reading the policy guidelines, if ambiguous, in a way which preserves the operation of the principles of religious freedom.

But in fact the guidelines, when read in context, are not ambiguous, and do not prevent teaching about the claims of the Christian faith. If parents are concerned about their children receiving such teaching, then they can of course withdraw their children from the RI classes. But if they are happy to enjoy the benefits of someone from a faith group helping their children to understand the implications of their faith, then school authorities and departmental officials should not stand in the way of this happening.

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