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Freedom of Religion II

The path to cultural pluralism

In my first class at university, I met and became friends with a Baha’i gentleman.  He had left the Middle East due to being persecuted for his faith.  His story has stayed with me all my life, and the need to offer those persecuted in other lands the freedom to live their cultures, languages and faiths.

Imagine a group of Baha’i refugees, who have escaped ISIS, settling in Melbourne and deciding to start a school.  A group of people from a foreign land, brought together through a shared history, culture and faith.

In the proposed amendment to the Equal Opportunity Act they will not be able to build or operate a Baha’i school.   Their Baha’i school will not be allowed to advertise for people practising the Baha’i faith or designate being Baha’i as part of an employment condition.

And then imagine if they continue with their school and specify being Baha’i as an essential element of being a staff member?  Well, they will then be threatened by the authorities here, and fined.  Pursued through VCAT.   Continue despite this? Probably bankrupted?  And what if they still persist in having their school?  Will we prosecute these parents?  Remove their children?

So, this sounds far-fetched, here in a liberal democracy?  We are confronted here in Victoria with the issue whether the State or the family has the right to determine the values their children are educated in.

Last year we were visited by a German school inspector.  She told me that she would be unable to accredit our school in Germany.  I had friends move from Germany to England as they simply could not find a school that they felt was appropriate for their children.  In Germany, schooling is even more highly controlled than it is here, and there are no alternatives. In Germany our Baha’i school would not be possible. In the US, there are more home-schooled children than Australia has school children, a huge number of which have come about because parents wanted their faith acknowledged in their schooling.

In Germany home-schooling is also illegal.  So what happens in Germany to those who are not happy with German schools or have had children traumatised at German schools and have decided to home-school their children?  Children who are literally sick at the thought of going to school?  The German police are sent in and drag the children away. 


Is this the sort of welcome we want to extend to a persecuted minority?  Is this the way we plan to treat those who deeply desire a faith-based school for their children?


I believe that there is a better way, a fairer way, a more open way. To help those who have suffered terribly, our response should be to continue to extend an open hand.  We need to show them, here, in our land, that not only can they live as they have, but that they are more than welcome to engage in our ways.  I believe that this is the way forward – to continue to share our pluralism and openness and democratic spirit. Hitting cultural minorities with a big stick and forcing them to change is regressive.  I do not want this for our society.  This will force our minorities to feel persecuted, to withdraw from engaging with us and potentially to cluster in separated groups in our society.

If we actually think that tolerance and acceptance of difference are qualities that we wish to embrace, if we actually believe in cultural pluralism, then we need to practice acceptance and tolerance.  Any other approach is simply cultural imperialism, might is right, and leads to persecution and discrimination. 


This of course does not mean that we will agree with all aspects of all cultures – but when we don’t, the onus is on us to extend a hand of inclusivity and tolerance, and through our friendship demonstrate a better way of doing things.  My feeling is that we may all learn from this.


While it is obvious that we need to extend tolerance and an open hand to those who have suffered for their faith in foreign lands, surely this means that we should continue to extend the same tolerance to those born here.


But why is the question of faith important in choosing a maths teacher?


This question is usually seen as the clincher in this argument.  Does faith really play a role here? Surely, Tim, this is where all of your arguments break down?

When parents choose my school the thing that they say to me over and over is that we love the culture of the school, the feeling of the school, its ethos... its values. 

A school’s culture, values and ethos flow directly from the teachers, assistants, coaches and other adults employed at the school.  I actually feel the maths teacher question above is insulting.  This policy would seem to imply that all we do as teachers is to roll out the cart, loaded with iPads with pre-installed numeracy programs.  This is a sad, limited and narrow view of teaching.  I feel that the greatest gift we can impart to the young that we teach is the values we embrace and the character traits we exemplify.  It is living our ethos and demonstrating our character that sees those in our care grow. 


To limit teaching to less is to short-change our children and demean our teachers. 

So, if values and ethos and character are important – if teaching is a vocation – then who we are is paramount.  And who we are simply includes what we believe.  In many of our schools this is loosely defined, but in others a shared set of belief is explicit – a faith.  I simply do not accept that it is the role of the state to define what we can believe in, or what shared beliefs we are allowed.  If the State has any role here, I would see it as allowing a space for a multitude of ways, beliefs, cultures and faiths.   

Please raise this with your local MP, and members of the upper house – the legislative council.  Simply ask them how they are supporting schools to employ staff who share their beliefs and so offer a range of schooling alternatives that recognise the different values different families hold.   Our school would simply cease to exist if we were unable to engage staff members who share our ways, ethos and beliefs.  I think that we owe it to others to support their right to a school that they think is right for their children.


Timothy Berryman (Principal) – Fitzroy Community School

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