News: School chaplains are now illegal


School chaplains are back in the news again today. In a win that could have come straight from “The Castle”, one Queensland dad has taken the Federal Government all the way to the High Court in Canberra – and won.

It’s about a whole lot more than the vibe though – because this case has concrete ramifications. It could potentially invalidate large chunks of existing federal legislation.

In his case, Queensland dad Ronald Williams argued that the Federal Government program, which funds chaplains in schools breached constitutional protections of religious freedom.

Although that claim was dismissed, the High Court did find that the Commonwealth Government does not legally have the power to use consolidated revenue (which is essentially just a fancy name for the Government’s day-to-day bank account) to fund the chaplaincy program.

Our Attorney-General Nicola Roxon is determined to find a way around the decision and has committed to keeping the chaplains in their jobs. However this decision also sets a precedent that could apply to other Government programs. In the future we may well see more challenges coming from interest groups who don’t like the way Government money is spent on arts or sports programs, for example.

The appropriateness of funding for chaplains in schools is a debate that has divided the opinions of Mamamia readers in the past. But this legal decision, coupled with today’s census results, that reveal the proportion of Australians who have ‘no religion’ is rising – the argument for chaplains in schools is weakening.

Here is what one of our former writers, Rick, penned previously:

You see, the Australian Government spends $222 million on putting chaplains in schools across the country. Not school counsellors or guidance officers or more support staff for disabled students. Chaplains.

There’s no doubt about it – many chaplains are lovely, dedicated individuals. Some have families. Some don’t. But in a secular country, in a time of apparently tough budget measures, spending $222 million on extending the chaplaincy program into 2014 is way off the mark.

Chaplains are not trained professionals. And for the most part they represent just one faith.

Here’s an excerpt from the program guidelines:

“While the key tasks of a school chaplain will vary depending on the needs of individual schools and their communities, they could include, but would not be limited to: assisting school counsellors and staff in the delivery of student welfare services; supporting students to explore their spirituality; providing guidance about spiritual, values and ethical matters; and facilitating access to the helping agencies in the community, both religious-based and secular.”

The helping students explore their spirituality part all seems very nice if, as the program says they must, chaplains only do so with students who want to, and parents who give their permission. But that isn’t always the case.

Have a look at this, from ABC online:

“The religious organisation that provides chaplains to Victorian schools appears to have breached federal guidelines that forbid it from trying to convert children.

Access Ministries provides chaplains to 280 Victorian schools and 96 per cent of special religious education classes…. The national school chaplaincy code of conduct, which every chaplain must sign, stipulates they should not take advantage of their privileged position to try to convert children to their religious belief or denomination.

But on its website, the boss of Access Ministries outlines a strategy to “make students disciples.”

When you consider that part of a Chaplain’s work description is to offer ‘support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships, spirituality and religious issues’, the kind of advice being given out to a pregnant teenager, a teenager contemplating sexual intercourse for the first time, a gay teenager and so on is alarming.

So there we have it. A political fix for a political problem, and schools miss out on $222 million that could have been better spent. Imagine how many desperately needed teacher aides $222 million could have funded. There are arguments for the chaplains in schools but they’re easily rebuked. Let’s try.

1. Chaplains are good friends for students.

So are trained counsellors.

2. Chaplains are a shoulder to lean on and provide good advice.

So do trained counsellors.

3. Chaplains help support staff and parents too.

So do trained counsellors.

4. Chaplains aren’t allowed to preach so they’re OK.

Neither are trained counsellors. Also, refer to the case in Victoria mentioned above.

5. Chaplains are non-denominational really, it says so in the guidelines!

Trained counsellors are definitely non-denominational. Also, refer to the case in Victoria.

6. They’re not harming anybody.

We’d be a lot safer spending the money on trained professionals. What will a chaplain say to that pregnant teenager? To the Muslim child? To the gay kid? To the girl or boy who wants to talk contraception? The kind of safe, considered and reasonable advice can be given by a counsellor. Not by a chaplain.

The arguments go on and on but the bottom line is this: chaplains do nothing that trained professionals could not in a support role. If you’re serious about why kids need support, you’d hire counselors.

If you need to buy votes, however, well there’s a chap for that.

Do you think the Government should be funding chaplains in schools? Does your child attend a school with a chaplain? If you has $222 million to spend on schools education, what would you fund?


More articles