Yes for Scripture, but No for Ethics

Image by Renjith Krishnan via freedigitalphotos.net

Image by Renjith Krishnan via freedigitalphotos.net

There are parallels between Ethics classes and Scripture classes. The first and most obvious of these is that Ethics classes sit alongside Scripture, at the same time, as an option for children who do not choose Scripture. In this sense, Ethics and various types of Scripture (e.g. Anglican, Buddhist, Catholic, etc) contribute similarly to the public school curriculum. Second, Ethics and Scripture classes are run by volunteers. They cannot be delivered by school teachers, and instead volunteers from the community are brought in to teach them. Third, they are coordinated by organizations that believe the classes provide benefit for the school community. The Scripture/Ethics class system asks parents to choose which class the child should attend, and a broad range of options caters for parents who prefer their child to focus on a particular religious belief, or none. The various organizations are driven by the awareness that parents and children want their classes to continue so that the option remains, and that they are providing a public good.

Primary Ethics does the work behind the ethics classes taken by about 7000 children in NSW public schools, and in all of the above respects they are similar to the various organizations providing Scripture classes in the same schools. They organize the training and mentoring of ethics teachers and they coordinate development and review of the ethics curricula for primary school children. They achieve all of this with the support of volunteers and donations, in the same way as Scripture class providers. But here the similarity ends. Primary Ethics applied to the Federal government for Deductible Gift Recipient status in 2011. Nearly two years later, in January 2013, they received a letter from Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury turning them down because they do not provide unique, broad and sufficient public benefit. Well, you might say, there are bound to be criteria and Ethics classes just don’t meet those criteria. Get over it. However, a browse through the ATO web site shows that many Scripture class providers do have funds that have DGR status, and the question arises Why would a provider of Ethics classes be denied this tax status, while Scripture class providers are awarded the status?

Funds specifically for NSW Scripture teachers that have been awarded DGR status are the Christ Church Scripture Teachers’ Fund, the Christ Church Gladesville Scipture Teachers’ Fund, the Putney Anglican Church Scripture Teachers’ Fund, and the Tamila Bay Scripture Teachers’ fund. Other funds with DGR status that could benefit Scripture classes are numerous and include the Baulkham Hills Baptist Church Scripture in Schools Fund, the Gordon Baptist Church Scripture in Schools Fund, the Heathcote Engadine Anglican Church Scripture in Government Schools Fund, the Oatley Anglican Scripture in Government Schools Fund and the All Saints Balgowlah Anglican Church Scripture in Government School Fund. I counted 27 of these on the ATO site. Surely the public benefit from each of these is no more “broad, unique and sufficient” than the public benefit from the providers of Ethics classes. Why on earth would an Ethics class provider not be judged in the same way?

The Christ Church St Ives web site states very clearly that “Tax deductible donations can be made in support of scripture teaching in our local schools”.

Guidelines provided by the Coast Evangelical Church Scripture Fund describe how their scripture fund should be administered. The guidelines state that “Upon establishment of the Scripture Fund, an application is to be made to the Australian Taxation Office for registration as a Deductible Gift Recipient (DGR) (as a Public Fund for religious instruction in government schools)”. Quite straightforward, then?

The Baptist Church web site states that “The Baptist Churches of NSW & ACT administers a DGR fund (Deductible Gift Recipient fund) authorised by the ATO to receive tax deductible donations for the purpose of supporting Special Religious Education (SRE) in government schools.” They go on to say that the funds will be used for Scripture teaching materials, and reimbursement of expenses to Scripture teachers. Until recently, I coordinated Ethics classes at my local school, and I can tell you that Ethics teachers provide their own materials, do their own photocopying, and would not consider asking for reimbursement for any expenses. They are happy to do all of this of course, but funding would help. However, such funds are available to Scripture class teachers but not Ethics class teachers, largely because of the DGR status discrepancy – Yes for Scripture but No for Ethics.

Providers of Scripture classes can apply for DGR status under the category Public fund for religious Instruction in government schools. Those public funds need to be registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission. Primary Ethics is registered in this way, but is not providing religious instruction. However, Ethics classes were introduced less than three years ago to sit alongside Scripture in government schools, in the same time slot, fulfilling the same public school curriculum requirement. Since then, the NSW government has been very slow in working out guidelines and policies. It seems that the Federal government suffers from the same sluggishness, having taken two years to decide on DGR status for Primary Ethics, and not having considered that a new or revised DGR category might be needed to cater for this new service.

DGR status attracts public funding. Primary Ethics, and therefore ethics classes, cannot survive indefinitely without it. If we lose ethics classes, the several thousands of children across NSW who opt for ethics are faced with the pointless and discriminatory option of non-scripture classes.

Whatever the reason for this decision not to give Primary Ethics the same tax status as Scripture providers, it is surely discriminatory and must be explained. If there is no reasonable explanation, as the above suggest, it cannot stand. Over the past few weeks there has been considerable media interest in this issue (28th March 2013; 2nd March 2013), and hundreds of letters have been sent to David Bradbury, Julia Gillard and others. Despite this there seems to be no further movement on the issue. If you value Ethics classes and fairness, please write to your MP and others by clicking here and call David Bradbury on 02 6277 4199.

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