This article was originally published on The Age.

The decision by Cranbourne Carlisle Primary School in 2015 to allow some of its students a temporary exemption from singing Australia’s national anthem has sparked outrage in some quarters.

Those exempted all belonged to the Shiite faith, a branch of Islam. But I expect these students usually sang the anthem with as much pride as any other Australian child.

However, on this occasion, the opportunity to sing fell during the month of Muharram – a period of mourning during which Shiites remember and honour their founder, Imam Hussein. This is a month of solemnity in which Shiites are to avoid all joyful acts, including singing. It captures some of the tone of the Christian period of Lent which was traditionally a time devoted to pious reflection and avoiding overtly pleasurable activities.

So what might be said about a school’s decision to let children put religious observance ahead of patriotic duty?

There would have been barely a ripple of dissent if the issue had been one of physical capacity.

The first thing to note is there would have been barely a ripple of dissent if the issue had been one of physical capacity. Imagine a young girl who has recently returned to school after throat surgery. She feels fine. Her voice has returned to normal and all discomfort has gone.

However, her doctor has warned she is not to shout or sing for the next month to protect against scarring. She must also avoid dust and smoke, and stay indoors where possible.

Her first day back coincides with the school assembly. By tradition, the school meets under the spreading oaks that are the its finest feature. The classes are formed up around a central pole where the Australian flag is raised each morning as the national anthem is sung by all.

The student wants to join her classmates at assembly and participate equally in the proceedings. Like every child her age, she does not want to stand out from the crowd. But her mother has explained the situation to the school principal, so instead of singing the national anthem with gusto, she finds herself sitting inside her classroom waiting for the others.

Now, would this student, her parents or the school authorities be blamed for not singing the national anthem or for not being at assembly? I think not.

Yet the analogy between this hypothetical and the Carlisle case is good in all respects but one. The risk faced by students at Carlisle was of a spiritual rather than physical order.

The idea of spiritual risk or disorder has become unfamiliar in an increasingly secular society. For many people, it is perplexing that someone might genuinely fear ‘sinful conduct’ or that such a concern takes precedence over civic duty.

Yet not so long ago a majority of Australians believed in hell and the possibility of ‘eternal perdition’. Indeed there are still people who would choose to be imprisoned or die rather than act against their religious beliefs or conscience.

The fact that the spiritual worldview is so unfamiliar to us does not make it any less real or powerful for those who are pious and concerned for the health of their souls.

One might doubt the validity of the metaphysics but not the sincerity of the believers.

The Shiite children of Cranbourne Carlisle Primary School were neither rejecting nor disrespecting Australia when they temporarily withdrew from their assembly. They were protecting their spiritual integrity. They were also accepting the advantages of living in a liberal democratic society that guarantees their right to the peaceful enjoyment of religious freedom.

The children who remained in assembly were singing the national anthem in support of this ideal. For all Australians are young and free.