Question to the Minister on School Scripture

Students who attend our secular public schools are automatically enrolled in scripture classes without the explicit consent of their parents. While parents can 'opt-out' their children, they have to do it in writing and may not know that's required.

Earlier this year the NSW Liberal Government chose to ignore a number of recommendations from its own review of special religious education and ethics classes in NSW government schools. Those recommendations would have given parents more transparency around their choices in regards to scripture classes and ethics classes. 

In Parliament, Jenny asked the Minister for Education if he thought it was reasonable that students in secular public schools are automatically enrolled in scripture classes without their parents' explicit consent. 

Ms JENNY LEONG ( Newtown ) ( 15:1 6 ): I direct my question to the Minister for Education. In light of the review of special religious education and ethics classes in New South Wales Government schools, does the Minister believe that it is reasonable that children going to school in our public, secular education system are automatically enrolled in scripture classes without their parents' explicit consent?

Mr ROB STOKES ( PittwaterMinister for Education) (15:16): I thank the member for Newtown for her question about the role of special religious and special ethics education in New South Wales public schools. Since 1848, successive parliaments and governments in New South Wales have acknowledged that it is a fundamental expression of religious freedom for parents to have the opportunity to seek special religious education for their children during school hours. Subsequent to amendments to the Education Act in 2011, they have also had the right to have their children attend secular ethics classes. I note that members opposite have divergent views on this issue. I also understand that people in our community have a range of different religious views.

However, since 1848, there has been an understanding in our political firmament that there should be scope for religious freedom and for parents to have a choice. The Education Act embodies the fundamental tenets of our education system, that is, that every child has the right to an education, and that the State has a duty to provide a high-quality education to every child. It also recognises that providing our children with an education is a shared responsibility. We acknowledge that parents have a crucial and fundamental role in helping their children to make education choices. Whether it be the opportunity to undertake special religious education in a New South Wales public school, whether it be to undertake education in secular ethics, or whether it is not to avail themselves of either opportunity, it is fundamentally a matter of choice. Government members respect that choice.

I wanted to put on record my gratitude and the gratitude of members across the Chamber—I think, I could be wrong—to those more than 11,000 volunteers who faithfully serve children in our schools where their parents have chosen for them to take advantage of either special religious education or education in special ethics. I have met with many of the providers who sought to speak to me about their perspectives on the appropriate policy settings. For example, I have had the opportunity to meet Jon Thorpe from the Anglican church, Murray Norman from the Presbyterian church, Bishop Peter Comensoli from the Catholic church, as well as Leonie Johnson—

Ms Jenny Leong: Point of order: My point of order relates to Standing Order 129, relevance. I ask the Minister whether he thinks it is reasonable that children are automatically enrolled in scripture classes.

The SPEAKER: The Minister is being relevant to the question. If the member had been listening she would know that. She may not agree with the Minister's point of view but his answer is relevant.

Mr ROB STOKES: I point out to the member for Newtown, the legislative provisions are clear—

Ms Jenny Leong: Do you think it is reasonable?

The SPEAKER: The member for Newtown will remain silent and listen to the answer. The House will come to order. The Minister has the call.

Mr ROB STOKES: My answer to that question is to refer the member to the legislation. Sections 32 and 33A make it very clear the rights of parents in relation to the different options for their children. The legislation provides the answer to the member's question. I certainly support the rights that parents have to make these choices on behalf of their young people, whether their choices are for a Christian religion or the Islam, Buddhism or Bahai faith. There is a whole range of choices and different providers. It is part of the diversity and inclusivity that we want to see reflected in our New South Wales public schools.

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