LUNCHTIME prayer and bible study groups run by teachers or volunteers have been banned at state schools in Victoria under a new education department policy.
The ban prohibits any prayer groups, bible studies, information sessions or workshops related to Christianity or any other religious practice, with an exception for students to pray individually according to their personal belief.
Under the newly signed Ministerial Direction MD141- Special Religious Instruction in Public Schools, students would also be forbidden from advertising church or religious events, or even from simply giving their friends a Christian music DVD or bible.
Furthermore, students would be unable to use a diary with a Bible verse or religious image on it.
The new policy has angered religious groups who say it could be in breach of human rights and religious freedom.
The ban, which has taken many by surprise, came into effect on July 14, as part of changes to the controversial special religious instruction requirements.
The policy says legislation requires that government schools are secular and special religious instruction is the only exception to this. The distribution of religious texts such as the Bible or Koran by any person is also prohibited.
A Victorian Education Department spokesman said students were free to bring religious materials to school.
Students could also form lunchtime religious clubs among themselves if permitted by the school but representatives from religious organisations or parents were not permitted to run them.
But the new guide says that Student Initiated Activities (SRI):
Cannot and does not take the form of prayer groups, youth groups, clubs, information sessions, or workshops. Legislation requires that Government schools are secular, and the only exception to secular education in government schools is SRI delivered in accordance with the Act, MD141 and this policy.
Any other forums or activities as noted above, would constitute promotion of specific religions in schools outside SRI, and are not permitted. For the avoidance of doubt, students engaging in prayer in observation of their religion at lunchtimes is not SRI as there is no element of ‘instruction’. Such prayer cannot be led, conducted by or at the instruction of staff or parents/visitors/volunteers. For further advice please contact the Legal Division.
Principals must ensure that no religious programs, plays, events or activities run or conducted by any external religious organisations or individuals are offered or provided in government schools during school hours.
Principals must not permit material, whether associated with SRI or not, to be distributed or displayed at a Government school if that material has the effect of promoting any particular religious practice, denomination or sect. This includes the distribution of religious texts (eg Bibles) by any person or organisation whether accredited SRI providers or not.
When advertising events or activities in school newsletters or on school premises, principals should be mindful of the requirement in the Act that government schools must not promote any particular religious practice, denomination or sect
The Make a Stand Organisation Website is quoted as observing the following (http://www.makeastand.org.au/campaign/more_information.php?campaign_id=60)
Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act & Equal Opportunity Act
This attempt to eliminate any expression of religion by students at school is contrary to the Charter which guarantees human rights including freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly to all people including school students.