Wednesday 26th of November 2014

turning the other cheek .....

tony's faith book .....

Imagine this: A Muslim zealot hands out offensive brochures in a public school. The material tells impressionable children that girls who do not cover themselves invite sexual assault by tempting men (who are famously weak of flesh - it's the way God made them).

It also mentions that sex before marriage and masturbation are sinful, and a person who engages in them is akin to cookie dough being tainted with faeces. Any child experiencing homosexual feelings should seek counselling, just as you would for thoughts of self-harm, or you know, any other kind of mental illness. The Muslim organisation responsible later says these pamphlets were given out mistakenly. An investigation is launched.

And then imagine that instead of voicing concern over the pernicious and damaging influence of religious zealotry on young minds, or sparking a public debate about the radicalisation of youth and so forth, the federal government instead gave these zealots money. Money to continue their presence in public schools. Money to continue "guiding" children and giving them pastoral care.

This is exactly what the federal government did this week, when it announced $244 million in funding to revive, via the states, funding for the school chaplaincy program which was struck down by the High Court in June.

Advertisement These millions in funding will go to organisations like the Access Ministries, which is the largest chaplaincy employer in Victoria. Its members were busted in February distributing brochures called "Biblezines", full of offensive dross about sex, sluts and gays, to Victorian public school students.

The same sort of dross that would have government front benchers snorting volcanic smoke if it had come from a Muslim source and not a Christian one.

(Access Ministries told the Age it did not approve the material and that it was given by out accident to children as a graduation present. The kids were later asked to return it. Nonetheless parents were outraged and an inquiry was launched by the Victorian government.)

Just as well that Cabinet was this week given a "no more ideology" memo during a rallying address from the head of the federal Liberal Party, Brian Loughnane, and his Nationals counterpart Scott Mitchell. The Australian Financial Review reported Cabinet members were also told to "stick to the middle" and "slow things down".

Perfect timing, then, to resuscitate a program of questionable student benefit, which appears driven completely by ideology. A program few people, beyond the Christian organisations themselves, have been clamouring for and which was deemed unconstitutional for the Commonwealth to fund. (Remember when the former government's Malaysia Solution was knocked down by the High Court in 2011? Then-Opposition Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison called it "another policy failure by an incompetent government".)

The announcement, which was rushed out after Fairfax Media broke the news on Wednesday, was a real Zeitgeister amid a debate about university funding cuts and the effective downgrading of Gonski school funding beyond 2017. In the context of an education budget, $244 million is not a great deal. But I imagine most headmasters would find something more useful to do with it than paying religious people to haunt schools providing vague "pastoral care" to students.

No doubt the majority of chaplains are at best a support to children, and at worst completely harmless. Peter James, the spokesman for the National Chaplaincy Association, says chaplains provide "social, emotional and spiritual support". One of their sessions involves students passing a ball in a circle and talking about co-operation and trust. There is no pushing of religion, he says, in fact it's against the rules.

But former education minister Peter Garrett, himself a Christian, says this rule is not well observed. In his recent review of Taking God to School by Marion Maddox, Garrett writes: "I became responsible for this [chaplaincy] program in 2010 and can confirm Maddox's fear, that the line between chaplains acting to support students in the provision of general pastoral care and proselytising was too easily crossed". It was for that reason, he said, that he extended the program to secular chaplains.

If the (funded) program is really non-religious, why then, has this Coalition government deliberately decided to bar secular chaplains from participating in it?

As Fairfax Media reported exclusively, Cabinet discussed and then rejected a proposal to extend the scheme to include secular welfare workers, as the previous Labor government had done. It was our famously religious Prime Minister who argued the government should stick to its original policy of funding pastoral care in schools.

And the people Abbott wants funding restricted to? One mustn't of course, tar all religious types with the brush of the extremist few. Access Ministries may have wrongly circulated those homophobic brochures and apologised for it, but these views are not confined to a single set of dodgy pamphlets.

For example, the main chaplain provider in NSW is Genr8 Ministries. According to its submission to a 2009 Human Rights Commission inquiry into freedom of religion, Genr8 Ministries believes "homosexual activity" and "homosexual fornication" are "serious sins … and we are committed to teaching this".

Of course chaplains are not permitted to proselytise. But one wonders how a chaplain who held these views would handle a gay student in crisis, a student worried that his or her most natural feelings were sinful and a source of shame.

To channel Attorney General George Brandis for a moment, people have a right to be bigots.

But they don't usually get government funding for it.

Australians voted for a Liberal government. To misquote the Beach Boys, wouldn't it be nice if we could have one?

The government's mantra on education is choice and autonomy, but this policy effectively micro-manages who schools can employ. 

Wouldn't it be nice to be governed by the kinds of liberals who insisted on the separation of church and state, you know, just like the Enlightenment fathers did?

The kinds of liberals who let parents, not government or churches, guide the delicate moral and psychological development of their children? The kind that didn't preach to us about fiscal constraint and then throw money at religious boondoggles of little demonstrative benefit to children? 

Again, to paraphrase the Beach Boys: Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray, it might come true.

Hot topic: Religious instruction in schools