15 May 2011

Australian evangelical group aims to convert children through government funded school religious programs

The Age - Australia May 13, 2011

School religion classes probed

by Jewel Topsfield

THE Christian group that provides religious education and chaplains in Victorian government schools will be investigated after its chief executive told a conference: ''We need to go and make disciples.''

The remarks appear to breach guidelines governing school religious programs, which ban trying to convert students to any one religion.

The federal and state governments said last night they would investigate Access Ministries after a recording of the speech by Evonne Paddison was brought to their attention.

Despite repeatedly denying that Access Ministries tried to convert students, the recording reveals Dr Paddison told the 2008 conference that ''without Jesus, our students are lost''.

''In Australia, we have a God-given open door to children and young people with the Gospel, our federal and state governments allow us to take the Christian faith into our schools and share it. We need to go and make disciples,'' she told the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion national conference in Melbourne. ''What really matters is seizing the God-given opportunity we have to reach kids in schools.''

Both governments have strongly backed the religion in schools programs.

But federal Schools Minister Peter Garrett said he would look closely at the material and ask his department for advice on any action that might need to be taken. ''The guidelines for the National School Chaplaincy Program are very clear; any breach of those guidelines will be investigated,'' Mr Garrett said. ''If there is any evidence of a breach it should be referred to the department for investigation.''

Victorian Education Minister Martin Dixon said the Victorian government did not ''in any way, shape or form condone proselytising''.

''We will be talking to Access Ministries and seeking an assurance from them that their instructors abide by this requirement,'' Mr Dixon said.

Access Ministries provides chaplains to 281 Victorian schools and its volunteers teach 96 per cent of special religious instruction in Victorian schools.

The Victorian government announced an extra $200,000 a year to Access Ministries in this month's budget to fund 196 chaplains. This brings the total state government contribution to $500,000 a year for four years.

The national school chaplaincy program, introduced by the Howard government, also received a $222 million boost in this week's federal budget, to fund chaplains for up to 3700 schools by 2014.

The code of conduct for the school chaplaincy program states: ''A chaplain should not take advantage of his or her privileged position to proselytise for that denomination or religious belief.''

Writing in The Age in April, Dr Paddison said special religious instruction was not about ''making converts''.

But in her 2008 speech, she spoke of two sisters who came from an ''unchurched family'' but learned of God's existence in Christian religious education.

''They love the stories and they pester their parents to take them to church. The parents really didn't want to do this, but eventually they gave in. The children came to faith and later so did their parents,'' she said.

''Unfortunately, although some have been won to Christ through the school ministry programs, not many have made the quantum leap to church.''

She did not return calls last night. Australian Education Union president Angelo Gavrielatos said the comments highlighted the dangers of the program, which should be scrapped.

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