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Gillard's chaplaincy challenge


Intersection of Church and State StreetsPressure is building on the Federal Government's National School Chaplaincy Program.

This month a challenge to the constitutionality of the program will be considered by the High Court. It claims that the program is contrary to s. 116 of the Australian Constitution (the framework for the interaction between church and state) and also that the program is beyond the Commonwealth's powers. Several state governments have intervened in support of this second argument

This particular program, initiated by the Howard Coalition government in 2006–2007, has been confirmed and expanded by the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. It funds schools up to $20,000 per year to establish or expand school chaplaincy services.

Currently about 2700 schools receive such funding; this means that overall 28 per cent of schools benefit, including the same percentage of government schools; 46 per cent of independent schools take part, but only 17 per cent of Catholic schools are involved. The Catholic Church is not the leading player; Evangelical Christians have led the lobbying.

The program has long attracted controversy and has recently been the subject of a government discussion paper and a community consultation as well as expert reviews and several investigations by Ombudsmen. Some academic scholars have justifiably warned that the program looks like a dangerous incursion by religion into the delicate balance between church and state.

The High Court case may well be successful on this ground if not the other. The politics is another matter.

One of the prime lobbyists for the program has been the Australian Christian Lobby. At the last two federal elections ACL has organised public leadership forums at which both the major parties have committed themselves to the continuance of the program; in evangelical church circles the question was seen as critical to establishing any political party's religious credentials.

Labor wasted no time in trying to outdo the Coalition in making clear that it was so enthusiastic about the program that it would expand it.

One argument against the program relies on the necessary separation of church and state, especially when it applies, as in this case, to staffing in supposedly secular government schools, but it is also relevant to church schools in terms of the use of public funds.

Chaplains are supposed to operate according to strict guidelines. They should not proselytise their faith, but must act in a secular role as a type of counsellor. That in itself is problematic, but there have also been questions asked about the qualifications of such chaplains to act as counsellors.

Within religion and politics there is a constitutional-legal arena and the practical arena of government policies. Political parties are more interested in the latter. That explains the leverage of lobby groups and the stances of recent federal governments and oppositions towards this program.

Christian organisations are better placed to lobby than their secular counterparts, which have fewer political resources and lesser standing. ACL is stronger than the Australian Secular Lobby, though teachers unions and the Greens add significant weight to the latter.

In the schools themselves any additional funding is usually welcomed, as it is in other spheres. An extra pair of competent hands is welcomed in most situations whatever their title.

For all governments there is a trade off in rewarding special interest groups and their particular claims. This program is not particularly expensive in the bigger scheme of things, though it has cost $437 million, and is widely distributed in different types of schools, reaching lots of parents and students. That makes it an attractive option for governments.

In the midst of debates about same sex marriage that will test and probably break relations between the Gillard Government and some Christian communities, the chaplaincy program is seen by both camps as a win-win situation. Some churches want it badly and the government is keen to provide it because of its political benefits. Nevertheless the High Court could change all that.

John WarhustJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a columnist with The Canberra Times. Flickr image by Ben McLeod 

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Australian Christian Lobby, National School Chaplaincy Program, church and state



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Existing comments

A few misconceptions in this article.

"They should not proselytise their faith, but must act in a secular role as a type of counsellor".

The first part is correct enough but given that DEEWR have failed to define a host of terms, phrases, concepts, what does 'proselytise' mean in the context of the NSCP?

More important is the fact that DEEWR makes no mention whatsoever of evangelising, which chaplains ARE allowed to do, and do, they do.

Now, the second part is simply not correct. Chaplains are not there to 'counsel' students at all. That is not what the PD says.

DEEWR allows chaplains to counsel if they have appropriate qualifications but not otherwise. But what are 'appropriate qualifications'? Again, cleverly not defined, on purpose, by DEEWR.

But in Qld, where the single largest number of chaplains are employed, Ed Qld denies chaplains the ability to evangelise or proselytise and state absolutely clearly that chaplaincy is NOT a counselling service.

Yet, school chaplains in Qld do all three, with the full support of Ed Qld and premier Bligh.

Toowoomba was 'in the news' for the sacking of the Catholic bishop recently. Maybe not so well known is the sacking of an entire hospital board at St. Andrews, by the Presbytarian church who claim to 'own and control' the hospital.

As with the intrusion of religion into secular public schools, so too we should be asking why a hospital, fully funded by the state, is allowed to be run by a religious crew.

The role of religion is in the church, not intruding into the secular public space, in the main, because religionists simply cannot be trusted to behave ethically, as years of sex related crimes, adoption crimes and overall abuse of humans by religionists, clearly shows.

Never mind the 'clever' politics with the NSCP, it is a scab clinging to our secular public schools and it needs to be picked off.

Harry Wilson | 02 August 2011  

I have a feeling that the introduction of the Federal Government's National School Chaplaincy Program might have caught the pedants of logic napping.

To begin with, the govrnment does not provide a divinding line between the role of school counsellors and that of school chaplains within the program.

Secondly, whereas the training and duties of a school counselor are well defined to include providing academic, career, personal and social competencies to students; those of a chaplain are neither explained nor defined within the context of religion versus non-religious school environment.

Overtly, whereas a chaplain may or may not be a professionally trained counselor, their duties are in some way circumscribed to a religion irrespective of the government package.

Ironically, while the school champlain program is a federal government's initiative, Section 116 of the Australian conistitution prohibit the Commonwealth from making any laws that may establish religion or impose religious observance in any way.

In any case though, I thank you professor for highlighting the untold ilicit give-and-take relationship between the government and the church behind the unsuspecting public.

Hillan Nzioka | 02 August 2011  

I agree with Harry above.

Voxpop | 02 August 2011  

I've spent the last week closely studying all the legal documents relating to Williams' High Court Challenge. While it pains me to argue with an Emeritus Professor, I am compelled to say that Williams case definitively does not canvass the issue of state/church separation or government funding for church schools.

Williams case does make brief reference to Section 116 of the Constitution, but only in relation to the 'religious test' aspect. In no sense will Williams revisit the separation issues dealt with in the 1981 Defence of Government Schools case.

There is certainly a legal argument to be made concerning the disbursement of public funds to church schools for religious rather than educational purposes, but this is not a matter that enters into Williams' case.

It is important that the public knows what will, and will not, be canvassed in Williams' High Court Challenge. It is not about separation of church and state, it is not about funding for church schools, and it is not about the merits (or otherwise) of placing religious chaplains in secular state schools.

At issue is:

a) Whether expenditure on the National School Chaplaincy Program was ever properly approved by parliament.
b) Whether the contract between Scripture Union Queensland and the Commonwealth is valid.
c) Whether chaplaincy can be defined as a 'benefit to students' in the context of S.51 of the constitution.
d) Whether the NSCP guidelines impose a religious test for the employment of chaplains.
e) Whether chaplains can be defined as 'officers under the Commonwealth' in the context of S.116.

Chrys Stevenson | 02 August 2011  

Leaving aside the legal issue for the moment, the central issue is the value of chaplains in schools. What value do they add? If the chaplain is qualified in religious or scriptural matters, then this is their value, but not their stated function. If they are counsellors, they should be employed as coumsellors, not experts in Christian doctrine, but this is also denied. If they are a "friend in the playground", then lets give them friends there own age to play with.

The exercise is purely political. We can't have an atheist running the country unless she is not running around as an atheist, but rather as a theist. That we can handle. Chaplains as counsellors and counsellors as chaplains and chaplains as friends and atheists as theists. It make so much sense.

david akenson | 02 August 2011  

How can one define secular education in this day and age. How can one possibly talk about history and literature and similar subjects without bringing in religion . Education has changed a lot since 1870 when to avoid teachers being caught up in sectarian squabbles. clergy were allowed into the new state schools to have pastoral contact with their children according to their denomination. With our modern multi-racial society which is secular and most people are not even nominally christian.

The real question is what should be taught by school staff as part of the normal curriculum and what should be taught and handled by outside experts which should include such life issues as health, human relations, drug and alcohol and gambling etc. Good christian education traditionally included such things as philosophy and logic.

john ozanne | 02 August 2011  

When I was a kid suffering severe depression what I needed was a school psychologist. But they didn't have any. The last thing I would need is some religious zealot preying on my vulnerability to suck me into their particular cult. This chaplaincy program is a disgrace and a cop out. Rather than doing what they should be doing and providing funding for school psychologists they are fobbing damaged kids like I was off onto nutjobs.

Roger Thomas | 02 August 2011  

I put my kids in a state school because I didn't want them influenced by religion. Stop funding school chaplains with tax payers' money.

Phil | 02 August 2011  

As a mother and grandmother the role religion plays in our Commonwealth governance and duty of citizen care is so important.

Anybody who is familiar with the abuses of State and Church(my mother was a child migrant from Britain with the no-mercy sister), understands this.

We know this is about the Christian Lobby vote, who can't wait to have a willing child to send off to a Scripture Union Camp to solve the complex issues which might be better dealt with a psychiatrist.
The fact is also that it is exploitative of the Commonwealth to have 'Chappies' who divine mission is at a bargain price and lots of unpaid pressure and labour.
Mr. Williams is a hero for taking this to the High Court.

Julie | 03 August 2011  

By welcoming "an extra pair of competent hands", schools have allowed ACCESS and Scripture Union to promote a perceived need for these so-called chaplains, which is now being subsidised by taxpayers. The schools have sold out to the evangelical Christian lobby just as much as the politicians.

Vance | 03 August 2011  

The spiritual development of children is the responsibility of parents and a role of their church of choice. During my children's education in the public system, I insisted they NOT attend Religious Instruction but during RI periods, were to do enrichment reading in the Library and not be 'punished' by doing litter detail in the school yard. I found ,despite my instructions on their enrolment forms that some zealous christian teachers ignored my instructions until I took the matter up with the principal. I encouraged my children to study evolutionary science and gave them the freedom to go to any church if they became curious. They have grown as responsible citizens without any impediments to their capacity to think for themselves and reason. They are now experiencing the same struggle as I had with my grandchildren being exposed to Christian 'Brainwashing' perpetrated by the Australian Government with their 'Chaplaincy' program which I believe to be contrary to the Constitution and should cease forthwith

Brian T. Manning | 05 August 2011  

You say in the above article that Chaplains are counsellors, there are not cousellors nor do they say they are.

They have Pastoral Care conversations. Which are rightly within the guidlines.
They also have a minimum Qualification which you would know if you had done your research.

They work as an extra dimension to a support network that allready exists within schools.

This network include the gudance officer, extra needs committee and the school nurse and school admin.

The High court challenge is not challenging the validity of Chaplains, its just challenging the way in which the program is funded.

I do like your article John but i found that you left out some key facts.

98 percent of School Principls where in favour of the NSCP continuing.

This issue about proslytising is fair and as far as I have read , including the ombudsmen report the chaplains have not been doing so.

josh | 09 August 2011  

"98 percent of School Principals were in favour of the NSCP continuing." ???

This is an oft-repeated piece of misinformation, not a fact. The study being referred to has no statistical validity.


If chaplains aren't supposed to evangelise, then why does Scripture Union in Qld require them to "operate under" SU's evangelical Aims & Working Principles?

http://apply.su-chaplain.com/index.php?cmd=information (under 'Essential Info' tab)

"SU QLD Chaplains must agree to and operate under:
•the SU Aims and Working Principles, and
•SU Statement of Beliefs, and/or
•one or more of the creeds of the Christian Church (Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed and/or Athanasian Creed) "

SU's Aims and Working Principles :


"Working with the churches, Scripture Union aims
a. to make God’s Good News known to children, young people and families and
b. to encourage people of all ages to meet God daily through the Bible and prayer."

Why should qualified secular youth workers be largely excluded from a taxpayer-subsidised program for public schools, while evangelical Christian youth workers are given preferential treatment? It is profoundly unfair.

Vance | 09 August 2011  

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