The Annual General Meeting of the Victorian Secular Lobby will be on Saturday, 6.30pm at the Melbourne Unitarian Peace Memorial Church conference room (110 Grey Street, East Melbourne). A light meal will be provided.
The agenda for the meeting includes:
1. Attendance, Apologies, Minutes
1.3 Minutes of last AGM
1.5 Organisational Status, Membership and Financial
2. Administrative Changes and Election of Office Bearers
2.1 New Act for Incorporated Associations.
2.2 Election of office bearers (President, Vice-President, Secretary, Treasurer, 2 Committee Members).
3. Planning for the Upcoming Year
3.1 Victorian Secular Lobby Policy Positions
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? .
James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, 20 June 1785
The word 'secular' comes the Medieval Latin "secularis", meaning worldly or temporal in distinction to the eternal. It pertains to the world that we all live in and share, in space and time. In George Holyoake's coining of the term, he noted that secularism wasn't an argument against religious beliefs, but an argument independent of it. "Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life."
It is not, as commonly assumed, anti-religious, rather it is non-religious. A secular position is to have 'no comment' to make on religion. In terms of the state, a secular position argues for a clear separation of church and state. Religious people, particularly those who are respectful of other faiths, and wish to avoid state-sanctioned bigotry, can also be secular in this manner. Thus one can indeed be a secular Christian, a secular Buddhist, a secular Muslim etc. It is not just for atheists and agnostics!
The Victorian Secular Lobby is open to all people who support our principles:
1. To promote the principle of the separation of Church and State and equality for all institutions under the law.
2. To resource and promote secular principles to journalists, politicians, and other contributors to public opinion.
3. To encourage co-ordination with like-minded groups to influence public policy.
4. To encourage persons to take up membership and engage in activities that promote secular principles and the Victorian Secular Lobby.
5. To engage in activities, including generating income and expenditure, to further these aims.
Our policies are also available for review.
News reports on this site compiled from the Proxima Thule Press Extracts Service. The Victorian Secular Lobby is a member of the Secular Coalition of Australia.
The Victorian Secular Lobby is incorporated in the State of Victoria, Number A00594400A
For decades, the scandal of Catholic clergy sexual abuse of children has simmered, flaring up every now and again when yet another paedophile priest is convicted and jailed. Now, the issue is set to reach boiling point as the Catholic Church in Australia faces forensic scrutiny and publicity from three government inquiries into how much its leaders knew, when they knew it - and what they did about it.
On November 15, the Victorian inquiry into the handling of child abuse by religious and other organisations hands its report to the government, after almost 18 months of hearings and submissions.
There are priests, former priests, wandering around our community and nobody except the Catholic Church knows their history.
A few weeks later, on December 9, the federal government's Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse begins two weeks of hearings examining the Catholic Church's national ''Towards Healing'' response, set up in 1996 to deal internally with sexual abuse allegations. And, in NSW, an inquiry into the police investigation of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle is due to report by February 28.
The Christian Brothers spent $158,000 on legal costs for Robert Charles Best in his 1996 trial on child sex charges. He was convicted and jailed, but 14 years later, when Best was convicted of a further 27 offences against 11 boys, the Christian Brothers spent another $980,000 on legal fees.
The Christian Brothers spent $158,000 on legal costs for Robert Charles Best in his 1996 trial on child sex charges. He was convicted and jailed, but 14 years later, when Best was convicted of a further 27 offences against 11 boys, the Christian Brothers spent another $980,000 on legal fees.
For Melbourne lawyer Dr Vivian Waller, her wish list from the inquiries is topped by a typically blunt assessment. ''The church should no longer be trusted to deal with this issue in-house.''
Waller has spent the past 19 years chasing justice for hundreds of victims of Catholic clergy abuse. Many of her clients have been abused by Christian Brothers - she files these matters under ''U' for unchristian. Since she set up her own firm Waller Legal in 2007, she has never advertised her services, but her three-room office in Thornbury has files stacked five deep on tables and the floor.
Every week, she sits down with three or four new clients and spends hours listening to their harrowing stories. ''I keep waiting for the phone to stop ringing, but it never does,'' says Waller, who operates on a no win-no pay basis.
Father Kevin O'Donnell.
Father Kevin O'Donnell, one of Australia's worst paedophiles, was known by police as the 'two-a-day' man. Photo: ABC screengrab
Until recently, the typical compesation amount offered by the Catholic Church to her clients was $10,000-$20,000. Most accepted these paltry sums, because the alternative - suing the church through the courts - was almost impossible.
Waller concedes the settlements have become more generous, particularly since Christian Brothers paedophile Robert Charles Best was convicted in 2011 and jailed for more than 14 years. Best was the principal of Ballarat's notorious St Alipius School, which at one point had four Christian Brothers teachers who were all later convicted of child sex offences.
Now, Waller says, the church's compensation offers under Towards Healing, which has no cap, are more likely to be $100,000-$200,000. But she's far from satisfied that it can be trusted to deal in-house with all victims fairly, honestly and with compassion.
Here's an example from as recently as September this year, which, Waller believes, shows a disturbing continuation of the culture of denial.
Her client, Darcy Higgins, alleges that he was sexually assaulted several times by Father Kevin O'Donnell at St Joseph's Catholic School in Chelsea in the mid-1940s. His compensation claim, through the Catholic Church's Melbourne Response (the local version of ''Towards Healing'', which has a maximum payout of $75,000), elicited an offer of just $32,500, even though the commissioner accepted that Higgins was sexually abused by O'Donnell and the church's psychiatrist found it likely that the abuse was a factor in the development of Higgins' acute chronic depression.
In July, Higgins wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Melbourne, Denis Hart, asking him to increase the offer and to ''please think deeper about this lifelong horror''. In one paragraph, Higgins complained that O'Donnell (referred to by police as ''the two-a-day man''), stayed in the Church's service ''even when the knowledge of his evil became known, being moved around, hoping his attacks on the innocent [would be] avoided''.
Hart's response, which was dated September 10, acknowledges that the commissioner accepted Higgins' complaints of sexual abuse by O'Donnell and that this abuse was ''a gross breach of trust, unforgivable and wrong''.
But he declined to increase the offer made by the compensation panel and said there was no scope for him to depart from that recommendation.
''You refer in your letter to O'Donnell having been moved around and protected when his abuse became known,'' Hart wrote. ''While I am aware of these allegations having been made, I have no evidence that this occurred.''
Four months earlier, however, Hart took a different approach at the Victorian inquiry on the handling of child abuse. The transcript of his evidence on May 20 shows Hart agreeing with deputy chairman Frank McGuire that ''O'Donnell was one of the worst group of paedophiles in Australia's history''.
McGuire then says: ''Paedophile clerics were moved on to innocent parishes and to innocent children. Do you agree with that?'' Hart replies: ''I certainly agree that is there in the case of O'Donnell and [Father Wilfred] Baker.''
In an emailed response, a spokesman for Hart says he told the inquiry he was aware that one of O'Donnell's victims had come forward to a church leader, Monsignor Moran, there was no record of what Moran had done as a result, and in 1993 Archbishop Little swore on oath that he had not known about O'Donnell's offending until 1992.
''The September letter is not inconsistent with [Archbishop Hart's] testimony at the inquiry,'' the spokesman says. ''In the case of [Father] Baker, there is evidence that Archbishop Little knew of the complaint and moved him. In the case of O'Donnell, there is no such evidence.''
Waller will have none of it. ''Victims are still receiving denials from the church, even after concessions have been made in the parliamentary inquiry. And they are still receiving offers of compensation that are ''non-negotiable'' and are significantly less than what they would be entitled to if they had a viable civil claim''.
She would like an independent compensation scheme established, as happened in Ireland after the nine-year Ryan Commission on child abuse. That scheme, partially funded by the Irish Catholic Church, dealt with an avalanche of 16,000 claims arising from systemic and pervasive abuse in scores of schools and orphanages across the country.
Of course, as Waller has learnt over the years, it's not just about the money. ''No amount of money can put back a shattered childhood,'' she says, outlining lives destroyed by alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness and suicide. ''Sexual abuse derails the entire course of their life.''
Justice also demands that the offenders are called to account - and on this front, too, Waller has found the Catholic Church wanting.
''This isn't rocket science. Most members of the community understand that criminal matters should be reported to the police, not swept under the carpet.'' (The Victoria Police, in a scathing submission to the inquiry, said that not one of the 86 offenders identified by the Melbourne Response had been referred to the police.)
It's an issue that greatly concerns Professor Patrick Parkinson, of the University of Sydney's faculty of law. In evidence to the Victorian inquiry in October last year, he said the Catholic Church deserved credit for establishing its ''Towards Healing'' and ''Melbourne Response'' schemes.
But he argued that the schemes can't be just about compensation, they must deal with the offenders. ''You want the police to be involved. You want prosecutions to occur,'' he said. In cases where the police do not press charges, for example, or a case is dropped, Parkinson said there must still be a disciplinary process to prevent offenders from gaining access to children.
''That is where I have the most concerns because … there are priests, former priests, wandering around our community and nobody except the Catholic Church knows their history,'' he told the inquiry, adding that the Church's ''Facing the Truth'' submission did not contain any information on what had happened to these offenders. (The submission states that many offenders are dead or in prison, while ''the majority'' of the rest are elderly, retired and ''have no authority to exercise public ministry''.)
Parkinson acknowledged that many people have made a real effort to ''cut this cancer out of the church''. But he told the inquiry that the only way to move forward was for the church to give a complete account of all the offenders against children and hand its files to the police. He urged the resignation of all those, including some now in high positions in the church, who had been responsible for the cover-ups over the years.
Parkinson also discussed the over-representation of Catholic clergy in church sexual abuse cases. Both the Victorian inquiry and the federal royal commission are examining cases in other churches and in non-church organisations such as the Scouts, the Salvation Army and the YMCA. But Parkinson's research suggests that there has been at least six times as much child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church as all the other Australian churches combined.
''When you are looking at abuse in churches, by far and away the largest problem is the Catholic Church,'' he told the Victorian inquiry.
This is partly because the Catholic Church is the largest religious organisation in Australia, and partly because Catholic clergy have been more directly involved in schools and orphanages. Another reason is that the Catholic Church, by its own admission, has been disastrously slow to realise these were not random acts of rogue priests but widespread and systemic criminal abuse of hundreds and hundreds of children.
Its initial response, to turn a blind eye, deny, cover-up or move offenders to other parishes, has compounded the suffering.
Waller is bewildered by the aggression with which the church (and its insurers) fights some compensation claims, often relying on highly technical legal defences. She also is bewildered by the vast sums the church has spent on defending its paedophile priests.
For example, the Victorian inquiry heard in May that the Christian Brothers spent $158,000 on legal costs for Robert Charles Best in his 1996 trial on child sex charges. He was convicted and jailed, but 14 years later, when Best was convicted of a further 27 offences against 11 boys, the Christian Brothers spent another $980,000 on his legal fees. Best, now in prison, remains a member of the Christian Brothers congregation.
It is examples such as this that propel Waller's fervent hope that the Victorian inquiry and the royal commission recommend the establishment of an independent authority to compensate victims and refer offenders to the police.
Indeed, it is difficult to understand, after reading through transcripts of evidence given to the Victorian inquiry, how the Catholic Church in Australia has been allowed to keep the issue in-house for so long. David Marr, in his devastating Quarterly Essay ''The Prince: Faith, Abuse and George Pell'' , points the finger squarely at political leaders, in particular former prime minister John Howard.
While Waller is angry and frustrated that some of her clients feel short-changed by the church's response to their abuse, she also says many of them are greatly comforted when she listens to their story. ''We can achieve a result that's great, average or disappointing in legal terms, but it's healing for them to have someone listen,'' she says. ''Sometimes the greatest gift that can be given is bearing witness and really hearing someone. Deep listening can alleviate suffering, I think.''
The Victorian inquiry and the royal commission give victims their best chance yet of being listened to - and in a public forum. But Waller is under no illusion that this sordid and tragic story is nowhere near over. ''I know we are still only dealing with the tip of the iceberg,'' she warns. ''Many people are still afraid to come forward about what the church hierarchy knew. They are waiting to see what happens with the parliamentary inquiry.''
She is also well aware that the evidence and recommendations of the inquiry and the royal commission will reverberate well beyond victims and their families.
''I feel for the decent, hard-working, trusting Catholic parents who sent their children to the care of the Catholic clergy,'' she says. ''I feel for decent parishioners who were lied to about why a priest was moved on or promoted, and inadvertently became complicit in a cover-up. I feel for decent priests and Catholic clergy who would harm no one. But everyone needs to ask, and to receive an answer - how did this happen?''
Victoria's major provider of religious instruction has been temporarily barred from delivering lessons at a Surf Coast primary school, following recent revelations in The Sunday Age that inappropriate ''biblezines'' were given to students.
Torquay College principal Pam Kinsman confirmed last week that the weekly 30-minute religious lessons by chaplaincy organisation Access Ministries would be suspended throughout term one, pending the outcome of an inquiry.
The Education Department has launched a formal investigation to determine how 17 copies of the magazine Refuel 2 - which intersperses New Testament text with such dating advice as ''How to attract godly girls'' - was given to students.
''The department is taking this matter very seriously,'' said a spokesperson. ''An external organisation is actively investigating a range of matters and will table a report for the department's and minister's consideration in April.''
Access Ministries has said that it did not approve of the biblezines, which include such advice as urging people who think they are gay never to act on their feelings. Dr Evonne Paddison, chief executive of the Christian organisation, said at the time that the materials were supplied by churches as a graduation gift, in place of traditional Bibles, and that students were asked to return them on the day.
''Our agreed curriculum teaches the basic beliefs of the Christian faith and does not stray into areas of sexuality at all,'' she said. ''We are extremely disappointed that this has occurred and will continue to investigate how it happened.''
Ms Kinsman has been principal of Torquay College for 15 years, during which time Access Ministries has consistently delivered religious instruction to roughly half of all students in grades three through six without any problems.
However, after contact from concerned parents and discussions with the Education Department, Ms Kinsman felt compelled to address the issue in a school newsletter explaining the decision to suspend religious instruction.
''We will wait until we are advised by DEECD that we must offer Access Ministries the opportunity to begin classes this year,'' she wrote. ''All parents will be sent a letter at this time giving you the choice to opt in for your children to attend the classes.''
The attention comes at a difficult time for Access Ministries, following reports that the popularity of religious instruction in state schools has nosedived. Between 2011 and 2013, the number of students enrolled fell from 130,100 to 92,808. Elwood Primary School was the latest to drop religious education, informing parents on Wednesday that the school would no longer offer the service on ''organisational grounds'', after too few students expressed an interest and staffing became an issue.
Meanwhile, Bayswater North Primary School overstepped the mark in its support for religious instruction.
The school published a newsletter claiming that the Education Department has ''every confidence'' in the ''very educationally sound curriculum'' of Access Ministries.
The promotion earned a slap on the wrist from the department, as the materials are not based on the Victorian curriculum nor are they approved by the department. The school published a retraction for parents online.
''The statement that the Access Ministries syllabus is based on Victorian essential learning standards is incorrect,'' read the advice. ''It is the responsibility of schools to review materials by providers who deliver extra-curricular programs in schools.''
WE love Christmas and spend billions celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, but according to a report, Australians are losing their religion.
In the past 100 years, the number of Australians reporting on the national census that they have "no religion" has jumped from one in 250 in 1911 to more than one in five in 2011.
In addition, many of those who nominate a religious affiliation do not actively participate in religious activities.
The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics social trends report provides the first in-depth look at the 2011 census data on religion.
"Rates of reporting no religion have been steadily rising, and Australia is not alone in this - rates are also rising for countries like New Zealand, England and Wales, Canada, the United States and Ireland," said ABS Director of Social and Progress Reporting Fiona Dowsley.
While 4.8 million, or 22 per cent, of Australians reported "no religion" in the 2011 census, 25 per cent nominated as Catholic, and 17 per cent as Anglicans.
On present trends, "no religion" will be the most popular response by the next census.
About half of those reporting no religious belief are less than 30 years old.
Almost a third of 22 to 24- year-olds reported no religion, and about one in five children under 15 live in a home where one or both parents reported no religion.
The ranks of non-believers also increases with higher education, with almost a third of those older than 19 with postgraduate qualifications reporting no religion compared with one in five of those with only a school education.
Since the specific instruction of writing "none" if a person has no religion was added to the census in 1971, the number of people reporting no religion has increased an average of four percentage points a decade, with the sharpest rise - 6.8 percentage points - taking place in the past decade.
The Atheist Foundation of Australia encouraged people to report "no religion" on their 2011 census forms.
But Australia's rising rate of non-believers also reflects global trends.
The ABS report found that the rising numbers of non-believers mirrors a steady decline in people reporting Christian beliefs, while those professing other beliefs, including Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism, were on the rise.
The fall in Christian beliefs has driven an increase in civil marriages, with seven in 10 marriages now conducted by a civil celebrant.
The report found non-believers are slightly less likely to do volunteer work (17 per cent) than people with Christian beliefs (20 per cent) but more likely than those with other beliefs (14 per cent).
The 2010 General Social Survey found that only 15 per cent of men and 22 per cent of women had actively participated in a religious or spiritual group.
Once, I had no issue with it. My son was receiving Special Religious Instruction at school, just as I had in the '70s. I believed it was innocuous enough - he would be learning about such things as being a good friend, being a good person and colouring in pictures of Jesus. No big deal. And it was only half an hour a week.
One day, at our usual conversation at the dinner table, my son exclaimed, ''Mrs Smith* said that there was no such thing as dinosaurs!'' What? He went on to say that when he said that there must have been because there are dinosaur fossils all over the world, she responded, ''God put them there''. My son was confused. He had read countless books that told him dinosaurs roamed the earth millions of years ago, long before humans. While I did feel a little touch of pride that he had questioned her claim, her response was unpalatable and unacceptable to me.
It took a long, very complicated discussion after this bombshell to try to smooth things over and to explain in simplified terms the sometimes messy lines drawn between science and religion, our beliefs and the importance of being respectful of others' beliefs.
The next day after a quiet word to an apologetic principal, I signed a form to say that I did not want my son to take part in the SRI classes at his school. The principal, though very supportive, said the school had little control over what was taught in those classes, as they were lay people volunteers. Of course, parents have an ''opt out'' clause. I believe many more would if they knew more about what the students are taught and by whom.
So why do our public schools allow material to be taught that may contradict parts of their own syllabus? This is not to say that looking at opposing views of how we got here is not valuable, allowing children to question and understand that there are different theories and ideologies. What is offensive to me is Mrs Smith offered that view as historical truth.
Instead of SRI, my son can finish off work, or uses it as ''free time''. Knowing how much schools pack into the school day, I can't help but think that that extra half hour would be welcomed back by teachers with open arms.
Principal Joe Kelly from Cranbourne South Primary School took a stand and I admire him for that. I hope that other state principals follow suit. The ''oversight'' by Access Ministries that allowed inappropriate and offensive material to be distributed at Torquay College is hopefully the straw that breaks the camel's back. I would have been outraged to find my child with reading material that instructed him to seek counselling if he had homosexual feelings, or that masturbation is sinful. Or that dinosaurs didn't exist.
Religious instruction has no place in secular education. If parents do want their children to be taught religious values, there are any number of fine, non-secular schools that include structured, approved and appropriate religious and values education courses, taught by professional educators. If parents want their child to be educated in the public sector, but still want them to learn about God, there's always church on Sundays.
Zealotry is alive and well in Victoria. Its targets, however, are not anyone or any group who can bring their life experiences to bear in coping with its attention. The zealots are those who believe it appropriate to peddle their interpretations of the New Testament. The targets were grade six pupils at Torquay College.
The strand of religion is not the point of concern. There is no argument against the Christian faith. It is the manner of its delivery and the content of its message that deserves opprobrium. It is fundamentalist claptrap masquerading as some sort of moral Christian code that will lead to a virtuous life. It is nothing of the sort.
It is blinkered and prejudiced; in effect, a tract of negativity that can only stunt a young person's growth to maturity that should be based on inclusiveness and compassion towards their fellow human beings.
For example, from the biblezine Refuel 2 that was distributed: Learn it - The Lord wants the wife to let the husband have authority.
Live it - How politically correct is your thinking? Ask Christian women who have been married for years what giving their husband authority looks like.
Q. Is it OK to go braless?
A. Without a bra, your nipples are much more noticeable and a distraction and temptation for men.
Q. I have known for a long time that I am gay, but I know the Bible says it is wrong. Still, I can't make these feelings go away. What can I do?
A. The Bible is very clear that homosexuality is a sin. Some people's gay feelings never go away, but you can chose not to act on them. Still, this is very serious. You need to find a trusted counsellor to talk about this issue right away.
The zine is published by Thomas Nelson, part of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, which is owned by News Corp. There are several similar publications available that offer advice on behaviour via a purported Christian code of conduct.
The biblezine was given as a present at the end of the Torquay College pupils' Christian education program, run by Access Ministries. The organisation says it doesn't condone the material and is investigating how it came to be distributed.
This latest disclosure follows the revelation last week, published in The Age, that hundreds of principals in primary schools had stopped weekly religious education classes. In the past two years the number of schools delivering ''special religious instruction'' classes had dropped from 940 to 666. Access Ministries provides about 80 per cent of SRI classes. However, it denies the decline, saying it had delivered programs to 780 schools in Victoria last year.
The principal of Cranbourne South Primary School, Joe Kelly, said of the classes that they had ''no value whatsoever. It is rubbish - hollow and empty rhetoric''. His teachers were committed to teaching, not ''indoctrinating''.
It is a salient point. While it is important that pupils be taught about religion - all religion - and, if their parents prefer it, instruction in it, there is no room in class for proselytising. Pupils are there to learn, not to be converted.
Young minds are impressionable minds. It is reassuring that the matter is being looked into; it is incumbent on the appropriate authorities that what a schoolchild is subjected to is of educational benefit and value.
The deliverers of such tracts as Refuel 2 can, of course, believe what they want to believe, as long as it does no harm to others. However, such interpretations of the word of God have no place in or near a schoolyard.
Hundreds of primary school principals have stopped offering weekly religious education in schools, despite a department requirement to offer the classes.
Current Education Department guidelines state that principals "must" schedule the contentious ''special religious instruction'' (SRI) classes in the school timetable when accredited and approved instructors are available, but Education Department figures suggest the number of Victorian state schools delivering SRI programs declined by almost a third in the past two years.
In 2011, 940 government schools delivered an SRI program, but by 2013 the number plummeted to 666 - a drop of 274. In real terms, 130,100 students received SRI in 2011, with just 92,808 in 2013.
Christian organisation Access Ministries is the leading provider of instruction, delivering 81 per cent of programs through its weekly 30-minute Christian religious education (CRE) classes.
Joe Kelly has been principal of Cranbourne South Primary School for 15 years, and acknowledged that until two years ago he had been "blindly supporting" Access Ministries' presence. That was until he took a closer look at the actual classes and curriculum.
"It is not education," Mr Kelly said. "It has no value whatsoever. It is rubbish - hollow and empty rhetoric … My school teachers are committed to teaching children, not indoctrinating them."
Ross and Michelle Clennett and their son James at home in Mornington.
Ross and Michelle Clennett and their son James at home in Mornington. Photo: Eddie Jim
In early 2012, Mr Kelly sent Access Ministries a two-page letter explaining why they would not be allowed back in his school. He subsequently spoke to a representative of the evangelical organisation.
"We did meet, and we agreed in the end," Mr Kelly said. "His words: 'If the school does not want Access Ministries, we will not force our way in'."
Mr Kelly said his actions created no backlash from within the school community, and nor was there any reprimand from the Education Department for his defiant stance - something he hoped would give heart to other principals considering exercising discretion.
"A lot of principals feel as strongly as I do, but they are not comfortable being as provocative as I am,'' he said.
Education Minister Martin Dixon said he had "full confidence in school principals making decisions in the interests of their parent body and the school community".
Despite the decline in numbers, Dr Evonne Paddison, chief executive of Access Ministries, said CRE was a "choice" that the parents of nearly 90,000 Victorian children still make.
"Some areas are seeing growth and others not so," she said. ''This is not an unusual pattern. CRE happens because parents want it."
Not all parents, of course. Members of the grassroots group Fairness in Religions in Schools have long agitated for change on this issue, and with some success.
Prior to August 2011, the SRI enrolment forms used by schools were "opt-out", meaning parents had to fill in the form or their child would automatically end up being taught religion, enrolled by default.
In the past two years, however, the forms became "opt-in", meaning parents have to make a conscious choice to enrol their child in religious education. This simple change had a massive impact on the popularity of SRI. Namely, far fewer kids are enrolled.
Emerald Primary School principal Mark Carver said before the form was changed, perhaps 75 per cent of students in a class of 24 would receive instruction.
"Last year that was dropping close to 50 per cent," Mr Carver said. "And once it gets below that, it becomes a difficult thing in terms of supervision."
Dr David Zyngier, a senior lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at Monash University, said his biggest concern remained for parents who opt-in but did not understand what lessons were being taught, or that they were being taught by volunteers - not teachers.
"I have reviewed all six booklets produced by Access Ministries, and it's basically low order, unintelligent, busy work and rote learning," Dr Zyngier said.
''It horrified me. There's nothing educational about it. It's all about becoming a disciple of Jesus."
Dr Paddison said the trained volunteers implement a curriculum designed with four levels of primary schooling in mind, as outlined in the Victorian Essential Learning Standards.
"As any adult interacting with young children will have some impact, we aim to make sure it is a positive one," Dr Paddison said.
Religion shouldn’t be the fourth ‘R’
Mornington father Ross Clennett did everything right. He filled out the correct form, indicating he did not want his son, James, to receive religious instruction.
The 6-year-old never made mention of God, or Jesus Christ, so it came as a surprise to flick through his son’s workbooks and discover that he had been learning about both for all of 2013, due to a manual coding error.
The school apologised for the mistake, but Mr Clennett said the real fault is in allowing religious instruction in public schools in the first place.
“This kind of mix-up was bound to happen,” he said.
“I believe there is simply no place in a government-funded school for that kind of education.”
St Kilda mother Mel Mackintosh only realised halfway through 2013 that her daughter received religious instruction for 18 months, after a similar error.
“My daughter has been told many times that God created her and the world and all that’s in it,” she said.
“This wasn’t taught as a Christian idea or belief, but as a fact.”
Professor Marion Maddox of Macquarie University, an expert on the intersection of religion and politics, is a member of the Uniting Church but agrees with Mr Clennett and Ms Mackintosh.
One major problem, she said, is that most religious instruction offers only one view, and no context.
Often lessons end by asking students to pray, or make personal expressions of faith. Such activity enters the realm of proselytising, which is not allowed in public schools.
“We expect kids to learn a fully rounded maths curriculum taught by trained professionals,” Professor Maddox said. “Why does religion deserve anything less?”
Correction: This story has been altered. The original story said there was a legal obligation to run religion classes where a teacher was available, but it is only an Education Department guideline.
Pharmacy chain Soul Pattinson has dumped a chemist who came under fire for asking customers to shop elsewhere if they use the contraceptive pill for birth control.
It comes as professional bodies call on chemists opposed to the morning-after pill and oral contraceptives to inform customers of their stance on signs and leaflets.
The Thurgoona Soul Pattinson Chemist - the only pharmacy in an outer suburb of Albury - reignited controversy on social media this week after a photo of a note that had been placed in a packet of oral contraceptive pills was posted on Facebook.
Pharmacy owner Simon Horsfall slips a note into every oral contraceptive pill packet; the note says he accepts the teachings of the Catholic Church and opposes the use of artificial contraception. The pharmacy also refuses to stock condoms and the morning-after pill.
Soul Pattinson released a statement on Thursday night saying it had cut its ties with the Thurgoona pharmacy because it did not support their stance.
''We respect that the use of contraceptive products is a matter of personal choice,'' it said.
''The pharmacist concerned has acknowledged the likelihood that some people may assume that the views expressed are reflective of Soul Pattinson's position on this issue. Consequently it has been agreed that he will no longer be associated with the Soul Pattinson brand.''
Pharmacy Guild of Australia Victorian branch president Anthony Tassone said a small number of pharmacies had a moral objection to oral contraceptives, and they should make consumers aware of their views.
''I would recommend they make the consumer aware either through a leaflet or sign.''
Pharmaceutical Society of Australia national president Grant Kardachi said the society's code of ethics said pharmacists had a right to ''decline provision of care based on a conscientious objection''. He said chemists should always act professionally, inform customers of this objection and identify another pharmacy that supplies the medicine or service.
Mr Horsfall, a practising Catholic, said he was disappointed by Soul Pattinson's decision.
''I understand where they are coming from but I am surprised at how quickly they have acted. My stance is about integrity.''
Prime Minister Tony Abbott weighed into the debate when asked what he thought about chemists sending out prescriptions for contraceptive pills with notes that say, ''If using this for contraception don't come to us''.
''That would certainly strike me as highly unusual behaviour,'' Mr Abbott told Fairfax Radio.
Pharmacy chain Soul Pattinson has cut ties with a chemist who came under fire for asking customers to shop elsewhere if they use the pill for birth control, with the Prime Minister describing the chemist’s behaviour as ‘‘highly unusual’’.
The Thurgoona Soul Pattinson Chemist - the only pharmacy in an outer suburb of Albury - reignited controversy on social media this week after a photo of a note placed in a packet of oral contraceptive pills was posted on Facebook.
Pharmacy owner Simon Horsfall slips a note into every oral contraceptive pill packet, which says he accepts the teachings of the Catholic Church and is against the use of artificial contraception. The pharmacy also refuses to stock condoms and the morning-after pill.
Soul Pattinson released a statement late on Thursday saying it had ended its association with the Thurgoona pharmacy and did not support the chemist’s stance on contraceptive products.
‘‘We respect that the use of contraceptive products is a matter of personal choice,’’ it said.
‘‘The pharmacist concerned has acknowledged the likelihood that some people may assume that the views expressed are reflective of Soul Pattinson’s position on this issue. Consequently it has been agreed that he will no longer be associated with the Soul Pattinson brand.’’
The pharmacy also refuses to stock condoms and the morning-after pill.
Mr Horsfall said the notes had been slipped into pill packets for 12 years. ''It's about integrity - if you say one thing and do something else, that is hypocrisy. We practise what we preach.''
The note reads: ''If your primary reason for taking this medicine is contraceptive then it would be appreciated, that in the future, you could respect our views and have your OCP prescriptions filled elsewhere."
He said the nearest pharmacy was three kilometres away and there were a dozen pharmacies in Albury.
Mulqueeny Pharmacy, which has stores in Melbourne's Windsor and in Swanston Street, also refuses to stock the morning-after pill but sells the oral contraceptive pill and condoms. Pharmacy proprietor Stephen Mulqueeny, a practising Catholic, said he refused to dispense the emergency contraception because his priest advised him against it.
Dr Sally Cockburn, better known in the media as Dr Feelgood, said one of her patients was refused access to the morning-after pill at the late-night Windsor pharmacy and was not told about the 72-hour grace period. She said the woman fell pregnant and had to have an abortion.
She called on more pharmacies to disclose their stance on reproductive services and said those that did should not be vilified.
''I worry about when there is only one pharmacy in a rural area. It is up to the authorities to ensure women have access to a full range of reproductive services,'' she said.
Pharmacy Guild of Australia communications director Greg Turnbull said while there were ethical requirements for pharmacists to dispense medicine and put patients' welfare first, ''pharmacists are human beings who are entitled to religious and cultural beliefs''.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott was asked what he thought about chemists in Victoria and NSW sending out prescriptions for contraceptive pills with notes saying ‘‘if using this for contraception don’t come to us’’.
‘‘That would certainly strike me as highly unusual behaviour,’’ Mr Abbott told Fairfax Radio on Friday.
‘‘I wonder what the various professional bodies in pharmacy would think of it,’’ he said.
‘‘If anyone has a problem with that, who has received that kind of material ... well I think they have a right to raise it with the various pharmaceutical bodies and say ‘what’s going on’?’’
‘‘I think chemists should act professionally,’’ the Prime Minister added.