Since 2006, Hugh Wilson, a parent of three teenage boys, has devoted countless hours campaigning for a secular state education system. As a member of the Australian Secular Lobby, Wilson has communicated extensively with the Queensland Minister for Education – both in writing and in person.
The Education Minister and the Premier remain intransigent, however. Wilson has been told, plainly, that the Queensland government has no intention of restoring the clause, removed from the Education Act in 1910, which guaranteed that children would not be exposed to religious doctrine within the Queensland state education system. In refusing the request of the Australian Secular Lobby, backed by hundreds of non-religious parents throughout the State, the Queensland Labor government clearly rejects the principle of the separation of church and state.
Ron Williams is also a member of the Australian Secular Lobby. A father of six, Williams and his wife, Andrea, assumed that by placing their children in Queensland state schools their right to have them protected from religious indoctrination would be respected. They were mistaken.
In 2008, Williams became the subject of international media interest when he announced his intention to take legal action against his youngest daughter’s prep teacher and school principal. He first became concerned when his daughter came home from school upset about the animals that were soon to drown in the ‘rain that God made’. He later discovered, that despite his express wishes to the contrary, the child had been exposed in her classroom to a movie based on the story of Noah’s ark and a bookshelf full of children’s biblical titles and had been involved in building a large cardboard replica of Noah’s Ark. Williams was also forced to withdraw his two oldest children from another school when it employed a chaplain and, such is his commitment to secular education, he is currently mounting a High Court challenge against the Federal government’s funding of the National School Chaplaincy program.
Another Queensland father, posting on an internet forum, recounted similar concerns. On enrolling his young daughter at his local state school he clearly indicated, in writing, that he wished the child to be exempt from religious instruction. Imagine his surprise when he took her to the park to feed bread to the ducks, and she said, “Daddy, why are you feeding the body of Christ to the ducks? You’ll go to hell for that.”
When he contacted the principal he was told, “Oh, sorry, yes, we accidentally included her in religious instruction classes. But, really, it wouldn’t make much difference because we just put the ‘opted out’ kids in the back of the classroom anyway.”
The Australian Secular Lobby receives hundreds of similar complaints from non-religious parents whose children are subjected to religious indoctrination in our state school system. And yet, the Education Minister and our atheist Premier, doggedly refuse to respect the concept of state/church separation and amend the Queensland Education Act.
Which brings me to the story of Helen Pomery. Helen Pomery was once a member of the Brisbane Christian Fellowship church – a fundamentalist group of 25 churches described by investigative journalist, Chris Masters, as ‘a small outwardly civilised church causing extraordinary harm’.
When Pomery’s younger daughter was excommunicated from the Brisbane Christian Fellowship, Pomery was instructed by her husband and the church elders to have no further communication with her.
“It was horrifying,” said Pomery. “I used to go and sit in her room and cry just for sheer terror of where was my daughter and what was happening to her.”
A year later, distraught and now defiant at being estranged from her daughter, Pomery was also expelled from the Church. This resulted in the breakdown of her marriage. On the brink of suicide, Pomery checked into a deprogramming centre in the USA to help recover her life and sanity.
Pomery is not the only person to suffer at the whim of this church. John Simmons, an ex-member of the Toowoomba Christian Fellowship was born into the church and confirms that breaking up families is:
“… deliberate and intentional to control people. They try to separate husband from wife. They would set a husband against a wife, a wife against a husband. They would try to put a wedge between children.
When Simmons and his wife left the church, their son, Haydn, was told to have no further contact with them. Haydn Simmons explains:
“I was just so torn apart, not knowing what to believe. Here’s my parents, my father and my mother and I’m not allowed to talk to them and [the Church is telling me] they’re bad people, they’re evil and the Lord God is punishing them …”
These concerns are not just being raised by the media and bitter ex-members. Even Baptist pastor, Greg Passmore, a brother-in-law of one of the church elders, spoke out about his concern for the psychological abuse imposed by this church on its followers. Passmore said, “… my heart breaks for people in that movement feeling trapped and dominated. Some of them are seeking help very, very secretly.”
Reporting on the cult on the Four Corner’s segment, “The God of Broken Hearts”, Masters asks, “In a civilised nation where all forms of penalties apply to perpetrators of grief and harm, how does a house of God get away with this?”
Helen Pomery is now divorced from her husband of 30 years and estranged from two of her children and three grandchildren. She alleges that the Brisbane Christian Fellowship ‘used intimidatory and abusive tactics to maintain control over members and was responsible for family break downs’. Backed by Greens’ leader, Bob Brown, Pomery called for a Senate inquiry into religious organizations, such as the Brisbane Christian Fellowship and the Exclusive Brethren, which allegedly practice such abuses, while still claiming government grants and tax exemptions.
Now, here is the kicker. Remember Hugh Wilson and Ron Williams and their failure to convince the Queensland Labor government to respect the need for a separation of church and state in our state school system? Well, apparently, Mrs Pomery has written to all Federal and State politicians about the Brisbane Christian Fellowship but says she has been told by Labor politicians that they were ‘reluctant to support an inquiry because they believed that religion and politics should remain separate.’
Is anybody seeing an egregious double standard here?
Submitting to pressure from religious groups, the Federal Labor government vetoed the ACT government’s decision to allow gay marriage (a decision based on nothing other than fundamentalist religious prejudice dogma). Further, Rudd and his band of merry Christians have happily ploughed millions of dollars into Exclusive Brethren schools and the National School Chaplaincy Program. Meanwhile, the NSW government has allowed the Anglican Church to vet the secular ethics classes to be trialled in that state to ensure they do not offend religious sensibilities. Both state and federal Labor governments have ploughed millions of dollars into supporting Catholic World Youth Day and the Parliament of the World’s Religions but ask them to mount an inquiry into harmful religious cults and they retreat behind the crumbling wall of state/church separation.
Senator Bob Brown has twice proposed an inquiry into the Exclusive Brethren but has failed to garner support. Similarly, the Senate has twice rejected Senator Nick Xenophon’s calls to launch an inquiry into Scientology, based on former members’ claims of abuse, coerced abortions and other offences.
How is it that our government is prepared to plead ‘separation of church and state’ as an excuse for not protecting Australian citizens from abusive religious cults but happily takes a bulldozer to that same wall on issues relating to education, same sex marriage, and the tax-payer funding of major religious events?
This farce must end. Our government and education systems must be secular and religious institutions must be subjected to scrutiny where there are allegations that adherents are being abused. Political decisions must not be based on religious prejudice and dogma, but upon evidence and reason. The Labor government has sold out to the religious right. The Liberal-National coalition did so long ago. Secular government will only be restored in Australia if we, the people, begin to demand it – through energetic lobbying and through the ballot box. Labor must be called to account for its double standard on church/state separation.
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Overington, Caroline (2008), Genesis of a Complaint, The Australian, 5 December
Hill, Janine (2009), Coast Woman Calls for Cult Inquiry, Sunshine Coast Daily, 10 January
Masters, Chris (2008), The God of Broken Hearts – Transcript, Four Corners, ABC Television, 23 June
ABC News (2009), Brown Wants Exclusive Brethren Inquiry, 21 August
Bowden, Rich (2010), Second Xenophon Scientology Senate Inquiry Motion Defeated, The Angle.Org, 19 April
ABC Television (2010), Scientology – The X-Files, Documentary Preview
Maley, Jacqueline (2010), Keneally allows Anglican Church to vet content of ethics lessons, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 April
Please donate to or raise funds for the High Court Challenge to the National School Chaplaincy Program
Helen Pomery will be speaking for the QSkeptics at the Red Brick Hotel, cnr Annerley and Stephens Road, South Brisbane on Monday, 26 April from 6.00pm. More details and RSVP here.
Express your views on a secular education system in Queensland by emailing Geoff Wilson, Queensland Minister for Education and Training at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or the Premier, Anna Bligh, at email@example.com .
Express your support for the NSW ethics classes trial to the NSW Premier, Kristina Keneally at firstname.lastname@example.org or email Penny Sharpe, a supporter of the trial through her Facebook Page, website or by Twitter to @pennysharpemlc – Penny is forwarding all messages she receives on to the relevant minister.
Assaults on the separation of church and state are enough to make a bear go cross-eyed! Gladly recommends the following further reading:
Hugh Wilson, Australian Education Minister Backs Cardinal Pell: ‘Secular Experiment Failed‘, Online Opinion, 9 July 2009
The War for Children’s Minds by Stephen Law
Parenting Beyond Belief by Dale McGowan
Behind the Exclusive Brethren by Michael Bachelard
Dear Mr Rudd: Ideas for a Better Australia by Robert Manne (ed)