Religion and State Schools

Dana St School

Religious education in State schools is a highly contested issue in Australia today. Part of the problem arises from the use of school time to allow religious doctrine to be taught by members of religious groups. This article argues that, distinct from religious doctrine, religious studies show the values shared by religious and secular groups. Realising that we share those values is crucial for building social cohesiveness in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society. .


A Shepparton friend and I grew up in the same Melbourne suburb in the 1930s and 40s. But we went to different schools, my friend to a State School, I to a Catholic school to be taught by the nuns. We laugh now about the Catholic – Protestant divide which saw mutual insults traded across the street as we passed kids on the other side going to their school. And yet, when the crunch came, our families found themselves together in the same work places, sharing trade unions, barracking for the same footy teams and getting on well as neighbours. We had more in common than our childish hostility realised.

All migrant groups face difficulties in becoming part of Australian society. Part of the problem comes from fear, fear on the part of migrants coming from countries with a strong religious culture, that their religious identity may be at risk in this new place; fear on the part of the mainstream communities from historical memories and prejudices which foster suspicion and concern. The Catholic experience may offer lessons for both groups.

The Catholic school system was developed because of fears that a secular schooling system would put Irish culture, religious identity and values at risk. The Catholic assumption was that the “secular” system was really a threatening ideological system with values, secular and Protestant, inimical to Catholic religious values.

Gradually our fears were allayed. Experience taught us that Australian society is not legally hostile to religion. It simply refuses to preference one above others. As a result, Australian Catholicism has lost its fears and has joined the Protestant initiated ecumenical movement where we discovered that Catholics and Protestants share many beliefs and values. Catholicism has also made a commitment to Interfaith activities and through that has discovered that Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists share many of the same beliefs and values as other Australians. There is also a growing realisation that many of the insights of the secular Enlightenment nourish the same key values. As a result, Australians share many basic values, nourished by different religious and secular traditions, holding us together as a community.

Because of this conviction, the Shepparton Interfaith Network piloted a Forum at Notre Dame College, Shepparton, in May this year. Jewish, Sikh and Secularist speakers discussed and answered questions about their beliefs, values and attitudes to others. The Shepparton Interfaith Network is convinced that it is this kind of “values” education which has a place in all schools – state, private and religious.

Our Network team is planning to train a team of local people who can assist teachers and schools to demonstrate to their students the shared values and respect which are the foundations of the Australian community. Teaching religious doctrine is not the responsibility of the State school system. But, teaching about the secular and religious traditions which influence Australian by nourishing those values for many families is not teaching religious doctrine. Ignoring the reality that school children come from a number of different traditions which nourish their values and attitudes to others in our community is to ignore an important role of a school – be it State, Catholic, Private, Muslim or Jewish. A multicultural society has to help its members recognise that it is the values which we share which bind us together as an Australian community and those values can come from a range of secular and faith traditions.

Children at Merrigum State School, circa 1920

© Frank Purcell, Shepparton Interfaith Network
Images © State Library of Victoria

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