Parents to ‘opt in’ to religious activities

Reforms may open up a new battle front in South Australia for religion in public schools

Parents will have to give consent for their children to be involved in religious activities in South Australia’s public schools, under proposed changes to the state’s education legislation.

Currently, religious groups are allowed to hold religious seminars for a maximum of one half-day per term within instruction time, at the discretion of principals. Weekly religious education classes, as occur in other Australian states including NSW and Queensland, were abolished in the 1960s. Under existing regulations, parents have to seek an exemption from religious activities in South Australia on “conscientious grounds”.

Reform to education legislation is set to change the state’s “opt-out” system to “opt-in”, requiring express consent from parents for children to be involved in religious activities in South Australia.

“The opposition is getting more organised and more militant.” – Chris Battistuzzi

The move opens up a potential new battle front for religion in public schools, after opposition has spurred major debates and regulation changes in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

Scripture Union South Australia is the main provider of training and resources for volunteers conducting Christian seminars in South Australia’s public schools. Scripture Union SA’s director, Chris Battistuzzi, says changing to an opt-in system will mean fewer children will be involved in religious seminars.

“It will reduce the number of young people involved in these programmes. It will definitely restrict the availability of these programmes to students,” he told Eternity.

Battistuzzi says the number of children involved in religious seminars and activities in schools are already dropping.

“We’re reaching around 15,000 kids every year, with our ‘Christian option programmes’ and Christmas and Easter presentations,” he says. “Go back four or five years ago, it would have been closer to 20,000.”

He says much of the reason for the drop is that many public schools have introduced an opt-in system for religious activities on their own.

“We’ve had a team arrive at a school and then told to go home because the forms hadn’t ever been sent out.” – Chris Battistuzzi

“It’s hard enough to get the schools to keep the door open, and the opposition is getting more organised and more militant. So, we have accepted the way schools want to do it,” says Battistuzzi.

“But we’ve still found that the majority of students come, even in an opt-in system. Parents still want [religious activities].”

According to Scripture Union, one of the biggest problems of the opt-in system will be an administrative one.

“Our experience in some schools who already have an opt-in system is that permission notes go home at the last minute, or are forgotten completely. We’ve had a team arrive at a school and then told to go home because the forms hadn’t ever been sent out.

“That’s where the ball will be dropped on this. I can guarantee it.”

Scripture Union says it has heard of other schools talking about implementing the opt-in system as one form, once a year.

“The kids would get one form to attend religious activities for the whole year. If a parent says no, it’s a ‘no’ to the Christian option programme, but also ‘no’ to Easter and Christmas activities organisations might run, too.”

A spokeswoman for SA’s Education Minister, Susan Close, told The Adelaide Advertiser that in-school celebrations of Christmas and Easter would not be affected by the new consent arrangement, with an amendment filed to make that clear. External organisations such as Scripture Union, which run hundreds of Easter and Christmas presentations in schools, would bear the brunt of the changes.

“We’re sowing a seed and letting the Holy Spirit do his part in bringing people to Christ.” – Chris Battistuzzi

Scripture Union is currently undergoing a review of its religious seminar resources. “We’re trying to be more mindful and careful about the content of the programmes and their appropriateness for a public school context,” says Battistuzzi.

“We still want to present a clear message around what Christians believe, but we don’t want to be doing it at the cost of putting people offside.

“We’re not Bible bashing. We’re very careful to make sure our teams are trained in the boundaries. We don’t ask children to pray, or anything like that. The ‘call to respond’ is simply that if they’d like to learn more, then we can give them other materials, with the consent of their parents.

“We’re sowing a seed and letting the Holy Spirit do his part in bringing people to Christ. It’s not up to us to do that, and we certainly don’t have the freedom to do that within the school context.”

“How God may continue to work in that child’s life is something we entrust to God.”- Chris Battistuzzi

Battistuzzi acknowledges that the “opt-in” changes are the first signs of a bigger fight coming for religion in schools in South Australia. But he’s not gearing up for the battle.

“Every step seems to take us further and further away [from being in public schools]. But it’s not a battle [Scripture Union] has chosen to fight. I don’t believe we would win the battle, anyway. For me, it’s an approach of having faith in God, to keep doing the work faithfully and getting his message to as many young people as we can. How God may continue to work in that child’s life is something we entrust to God.”

“If that ends up with us having nothing to do in schools – and I can see that day coming, without a doubt – then we’ll have to figure out what else we can do, instead.”

In the meantime, he says the new legislation still gives Scripture Union and other providers the right to be in schools.

“There’s no reduction of the time we’re allowed. We still retain the right to be in schools, in school time. And I’m really thankful for that.”