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VCAT challenge to Education Department

Posted by Secular on August 28, 2018

VCAT decision on the rights of children to be free from religious coercion in schools

The Secular Party sought to bring a case to the Human Rights division of the Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal, challenging the Education Department about the mistreatment of a girl in a state school. The case will now not be heard.

The case was about whether imposing a religion on a child in a school, without the informed and free consent of the child, in a way detrimental to the child, is discrimination against the child. VCAT on 27 August 2018 declined to rule on the case, based on a technicality.

The case was based on a girl who suffered cruel and inhumane treatment by having a religious dress code imposed on her in the heat of summer. This involved her wearing an additional layer of clothing, covering all except her face and hands, in extreme heat. No child would freely choose to suffer in this way. It cannot be the free choice of the child.

This case was not about preventing the practice of religion. It was about the welfare of children. This was not against freedom of religion. It was about upholding freedom of religion. Children are not born with a religious belief. Children can have religious beliefs imposed on them without choice and without consent. To do this in a school is wrong.

The most fundamental freedom of religion is the freedom to choose a religion. Without this, there is no freedom of religion. Children must have this choice.
For our society to turn a blind eye to the suffering of a child due to the imposition of religion in this way is a form of child abuse. We have ignored the suffering of children at the hands of religion for too long.

It was not just the cruelty of the dress code in extreme heat, and the associated health risks, that was discriminatory. Such clothing is an encumbrance, which is detrimental to the child’s physical development. It unnecessarily differentiates the child from others. It imposes psychological detriments. It imposes a mindset that inhibits critical and creative thinking. It limits the child’s educational development and opportunity.

This case sought to highlight another aspect of our treatment of children in schools that has been completely ignored: the human rights of the child. Every person has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right to freedom from coercion in religion. A child is a person too. A child has these rights.

A five-year-old child is too young to have a freely formed religious belief. To coerce a child into forming a particular belief, particularly by means of inducing fear and guilt, is a breach of the rights of the child. Our society should not permit this to occur in schools.

The technicality concerned the issue of consent. The Secular Party argued that a small girl in this case could not be expected to give consent to our actions, against the wishes of the parents. The girl had not given consent to her mistreatment, we argued. We produced five witness statements from women who stated that when they were girls, they were dressed in this way and they did not approve it, did not like it, did not consent, and would have consented to someone trying to help them.

Despite this, the Tribunal ruled that without the explicit consent of the child concerned, the Secular Party’s application could not proceed. Thus the substantive issues regarding discrimination against the child, and the breach of the rights of the child were not considered.

However, the case is still strong that discrimination does exist and that the rights of the child have been breached. These issues remain to be tested in any court. We are now perhaps at least a step closer to having these issues resolved.

The Secular Party remains committed to a more humane and rational treatment of children in our schools. We will continue to fight for this in our advocacy and in our political campaigns.

John Perkins
Secular Party of Australia

The VCAT Decision, 27 August 2018


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