The current debate is about a couple of things, I think, and Christians need to engage in the debate with the utmost honesty about their arguments.
On the one hand it is argued that there is no place for the religious domain in a public school setting; that secular means free from religion; and that the presence of Christian religious people in public schools, in particular, is evidence of a continuation of the cosy relationship between church and government that was supposed to be dismantled by our Constitution. That discourse is the dominant view of the readers and contributors to this GetUp! page.
I am just as uncomfortable as many readers with the cosy relationship between church and state and the not unreasonable perception that the proposal of the NSCP was entirely motivated by a desire to secure political support from a particular constituency as well as creating a pathway into the funding of public schooling in the states, thus influencing policy outside of the national jurisdiction. That is a political discourse which I do not wish to participate in.
I do believe, however, that there are well grounded arguments that create an alternative discourse by which the religious can legitimately occupy a place in our public school system.
Firstly, the presence of the religious in our public school settings is only a threat to the secular nature of those schools when there is coercion involved, when one religious view has structural precedence over others, where the purpose of the presence of the religious is to persuade students to subscribe to a particular religious world-view.
Contributors to these pages have provided sufficient examples to demonstrate that there are situations in which the presence of some Christian religious people and programs is such a threat to the secular nature of our schools. It is not universally the case and it need not be so. My Christian friends need to get used to finding ways to be there that do not pose such a threat.
The Principal of the Separation of Church and State that we believe is somewhat enshrined in out Constitution can be understood or interpreted in several ways. It is clear that for the Americans this means no prayers in school, and that the only way Christians can get close to teaching their "crazy views of creation" in public schools, for example, is to invent something they call "intelligent design", leave any reference to God out of it, as if the God factor is self-evident, and call it science. If you look back at the historical, social and political context in which the American constitution was established, and that the Free World was a place where many marginalised religious groups sought freedom from the religious oppression of the Church-States of Europe, it is no wonder they banned any presence of the religious from schools.
The Australian Constitution was written in a different era, guided by different objectives. The practical outworking of the Constitution on this matter has been to allow the religious to be present without requiring adherence or observance. Even in Victoria and elsewhere, where SRE is compulsory if offered by the church, there is a personal prerogative of withdrawal for parents. I actually believe that public schools should not be bound as they are in Victoria. They are not in WA, and my organisation has much healthier relationships with schools as a result.
As to the legitimate place of the religious/spiritual domain within the syllabus of a public school, it is worth noting that successive Declarations on Education, the latest being the Melbourne Declaration of 2008, all make reference to the need of any comprehensive Curriculum to teach kids, not just about religious diversity and pluralism, as a General Religious Education program would do, but to give them skills to look after their own spiritual welfare. Each state has a Curriculum Framework, and the Commonwealth is trying to overlay a National one at the moment. All these documents make reference in various ways to these matters, providing a way in for schools to address the spiritual and religious world-view. It is interesting to note that in none of the state jurisdictions is a General Religious Education Program delivered by classroom teachers, and at least in WA where the Curriculum Council has created two courses about religion for teaching as a high-school subject - "Beliefs and Values" and "Religion and Life" - these two courses have only ever been taught in faith-based schools. No a single state school has offered them to students.
The absence of the religious domain in the curriculum of public schools makes these schools less than comprehensive schools as there is a major gap in what they offer to students.
If the schools won't offer this dimension, and there is legislative provision for religious groups to do so though volunteer visitors to schools, I see that as an opportunity that should be taken. However, when visiting religious volunteers go into schools, they must remember that they are not in Sunday School. They are in a secular context in which a pluralist approach to world views is prevalent, and that they are there to make a contribution to that in the name of their faith - not to convert students to their particular religion. This is about giving kids information about the religious world-view and some life skills that they may make use of later on in life.
There will be challenges to this discourse, I am sure, but s Christians we need to be able to make a meaningful contribution to the debate. I hope that I am able to do that.