by Paul Bibby
STUDENTS opting out of scripture classes at a Sydney high school are being invited to attend a personal development program run by the Hillsong Church where they are hearing personal testimonials from church members, a teacher at the school says.
The teacher's federation representative for Cheltenham Girls High, Doug Williamson, said non-scripture students at the school were being invited to join the Shine program, where they were exposed to religious content.
Hillsong Church says Shine is non-religious and the volunteers who conduct the program do not evangelise, but Mr Williamson said children had been told stories about finding religion.
"My understanding is that on a number of occasions the facilitators have spoken about their own lives and how they came to be members of the Hillsong Church," Mr Williamson said. "It is inappropriate for students to be subjected to this kind of closet evangelism."
Speaking through the NSW Department of Education's media unit, the school's principal, Susan Marshall, told Fairfax Media all parents were informed the Shine program was run by Hillsong and had to sign a permission slip.
She said there was no evidence to suggest testimonials were provided during the program and that "if they were, the program would be terminated".
But Mr Williamson said he believed many parents were not fully aware of what the classes involved, and that without constant monitoring, there was "no way to know exactly what's going on".
A parent from another Sydney school said students at her child's school were automatically enrolled in the Shine program if they chose not to attend scripture.
"When you tick the box [for non-scripture] you are automatically told that your child will be enrolled in Shine," the parent said. "It appears that they don't have enough teachers to supervise the kids if they don't do scripture, so they just bung them in Shine. It's an alarming situation because most of the mums and dads don't even know it's happening."
The NSW Greens yesterday called for Shine to be suspended while allegations that it put an unhealthy and inappropriate emphasis on physical appearance were investigated. It joined the NSW Federation of Parents and Citizens in expressing concern that the program could damage the self-esteem of the at-risk girls it purported to help.
Hillsong Citycare said grooming was an aspect of the program but not its main focus.
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