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the strange case of school chaplaincy

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Ron Williams - hero of the High Court challenge

Ron Williams – hero of the High Court challenge

The National School Chaplaincy Program is on the face of it a curiously retrograde program that first came into being in 2006, near the end of Howard’s conservative Prime Ministership. It apparently began its life with a conversation in May of that year between the Victoria-based federal minister, Greg Hunt, and one Peter Rawlings, a member of Access Ministries and a volunteer in primary school religious instruction. Rawlings suggested to Hunt that it would be a great idea to install Christian ‘support workers’ in state schools throughout the Mornington Peninsula area. Hunt, whose religious beliefs are a mystery to me, apparently though this a great idea, one that should be extended to the whole nation, with federal support. His boss, PM Howard, who claims to be a committed Christian, was also whole-hearted in his support as were various other conservative MPs.

Given that over 23% of Australians are openly non-religious (a decidedly conservative figure), and that the rise of the non-religious over the last twenty years is the most significant change in religion in this country, and given that every Christian denomination is in decline, some of them spectacularly, and given the fall in church attendances, and the increasing multiculturalism and multi-religiousity of that proportion of society that is still religious, I personally find it unfathomable that this proposal has received such support. I can only suppose that such organisations as the Australian Christian Lobby, Access Ministries and Scripture Union Australia have far more political power and clout than I could ever have thought possible.

In any case, Labor, under its devoutly Christian PM Kevin Rudd, chose not to throw the scheme out when it came to power in late 2007. Labor has long supported the separation of church and state, a position reinforced, one would’ve thought, by the increasing secularisation of our polity in recent years. Rudd himself was keen to reassure people that he supported church-state separation, as did his Education Minister, Peter Garrett (another Christian). So why did they persist in this program? Wouldn’t a financial boost to school counselling have been a simpler, more effective and far less controversial option? Of course the program fits the current conservative government’a agenda perfectly. It has hit schools hard with its recent cost-cutting ‘share the pain’ budget, while at the same time earmarking some $245 million for chaplaincy over the next four years or so. The program will replace the existing School Welfare Program from the start of 2015, thus undermining school counselling and psychological services. In May of this year, a provision to allow for non-secular ‘chaplains’ was struck out. It was a finicky provision in any case, only allowing for non-secular welfare workers when all attempts to find an ordained chaplain for the job had failed. However, the striking out of the provision gives a clear indication that this is a federally-backed religious (or more specifically Christian) position. It can also come at a great cost to individual workers and to recipients of their services, as this story from the Sydney Morning Herald of May 21 shows:

Last week’s budget delivered a double blow to youth welfare worker Joanne Homsi. For the past 18 months, Ms Homsi has worked in two high schools in the St George and Sutherland area, supporting students with drug and alcohol issues, low confidence, family problems and suicidal thoughts. As well as talking with students, she has connected them to mental health centres, remedial learning programs and other services. Ms Homsi loves the job, and the schools value her work. But in December she will be looking for a new job – and there will not be a safety net to catch her if she cannot find one. Because she is under 30, she would have to wait six months before she can receive any unemployment benefits under tough new rules for young job seekers.

The federal government, in any case, hasn’t generally been in the business of providing funding for these kinds of services, which is usually a states responsibility, but of course schools will look for funding anywhere they can, and to have that scarce funding tied to a Christian belief system seems wildly anachronistic. This Essential Report poll gives the clear impression that the program is unsupported by the general public, but maybe there’s a larger ‘silent’ public that the conservatives are appealing to, or maybe they simply don’t care about what the public prefers. Their argument would be that take-up of the program is entirely voluntary. In other words, cash-strapped schools are faced with this option or no option as far as federal funding is concerned.

There are plenty of parents who are willing to take a stand on this issue, however. One of them, Ron Williams, Australian Humanist of the Year in 2012, was recently successful yet again in his second High Court challenge to the NSCP, though the government, and the Labor opposition, are perversely determined to find their way around the High Court’s ruling. In a 6-0 result worthy of the German national team the High Court found that the funding model of the government was inappropriate. When Williams’ first High Court challenge was successful in 2012, the then Gillard Labor government rushed through the Financial Framework Amendment Legislation Act to enable it to fund a range of  programs without legislation. Some $6 million was provided to the Scripture Union of Queensland. To add insult to injury for Williams, a father of four school-age children, funding was provided to his own children’s school to employ a chaplain.

The recent High Court finding says that the funding mechanism is invalid. This affects many other federal government funding mechanisms too, as it happens, and that’s a big headache for the government, but the most interesting finding related to the NSCP is that the funding, in the overwhelming view of the High Court, did not provide a benefit to students – which it should according to section 51 (XXiiiA) of the constitution, in order to be valid. In other words the High Court overwhelmingly disagreed with John Howard’s claim, made at the launch of the NSCP in October 2006, that ‘students need the guidance of chaplains, rather than counsellors’. I don’t think there’s any doubt that, had the money been earmarked for counsellors, the High Court would indeed have seen that as a benefit to students.

So the government is trying to find new funding models for a variety of programs it wants to hold onto, but it’s got a problem on its hands with chaplaincies. They have to be Christians, but they can’t proselytise, they’re there to give spiritual guidance to students, but this isn’t seen legally as providing a benefit, and how do they do that anyway without proselytising? What a holy mess it is, to be sure.

 

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Written by stewart henderson

August 2, 2014 at 5:45 pm

One Response

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  1. […] the National School Chaplaincy Program is in recess, having been stymied by two effective High Court challenges brought by a private citizen, Ron […]


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