No place for chaplains in public schools

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The High Court handed the Federal Government a massive policy free kick recently: the opportunity to walk away from a Howard Government policy that pays churches to infiltrate public schools, writes Paris Dean.

Progressive people within the Labor Party must remain vigilant about preserving a strict separation between church and state. But since 2006 both Coalition and Labor federal governments have actively provided resources to chaplaincy organisations whose core purpose is to undermine this time-honoured principle. 

As Catherine Byrne points out in her contribution to theconversation.edu.au, the program has converted school chaplaincy from a hobby for well meaning parents with some spare time, into a national industry.

The High Court challenge to the Government’s school chaplains program had two bases: firstly, that the Government had no authority to enter into the funding agreements absent any underpinning legislation and, secondly, that the program violated section 116 of the Constitution. This section prevents the Commonwealth from instituting a religious test as qualification for a Commonwealth office. 

Queensland father Ron Williams, launched the action, contended that the government had created public offices (the office of ‘school chaplain’) that required applicants to be religious.

The High Court rejected this argument because the chaplains have no direct contractual relationship with the government and therefore the position of ‘school chaplain’ isn’t a public office. The government funnels chaplaincy funding through third parties, which in turn hire the chaplains and send them to schools.

Notwithstanding this, the decision created political opportunities on at least two fronts.

Firstly, it put the chaplaincy program in the spotlight and, secondly, it focused attention on how this program was administered: large cash payments to religious third parties. One of the most vocal proponents of the program is Scripture Union Queensland, which uses that money to operate in public schools, while encouraging ‘obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ … through the Bible and prayer’. 

This in an environment where the percentage of Australians identifying as Christian, while still significant, continues to fall sharply, and even people of faith overwhelmingly believe that religion and politics shouldn’t mix.

The Scripture Union of Queensland is quick to argue that its core mission isn’t preaching the faith, but helping children. In a statement issued after the High Court ruling they countered:

‘Chaplains provide an important child and youth welfare role. This is recognised by the school principals and school communities who have chosen to have a ‘chappy’.’

Which begs the question, if the main focus of the program is child welfare, wouldn’t the money be better spent on trained welfare professionals, instead of theists?

The opportunity costs are huge. The program has cost $450 million so far. That would cover the Government contribution to Lifeline for 50 years.

Seizing the momentum on school chaplaincy would provide a point of contrast with the aggressively theist worldview that Tony Abbott embodies. Many are already cautious of Abbott for this reason, but it will be hard for Labor to paint Tony Abbott as ‘the mad monk’ when programs such as this (which Abbott helped introduce) now enjoy bipartisan support.

It’s disappointing that the Government’s first reaction to the High Court ruling was to assure the public that a way would be found to circumvent its implications – and  to reassure the public that private school funding was safe.

Labor progressives and secularists should use the opportunity to expose this wasteful program. Allowing a religious program to enter our public schools damages the nation’s secular institutions

Author: Paris Dean

Paris Dean is an industrial officer with the South Australian Branch of United Voice.


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