Australia’s Supreme Court Rules That Government Cannot Fund School Chaplaincy Program

Ron Williams wanted his children to attend a secular school in Australia, so you can imagine his surprise when his children told him they were attending “assemblies where the chaplain presided and a rap song was played extolling the virtues of chaplains over teachers as adults kids could trust.”

As it turned out, it was all part of a program funded by the country’s government. In fact, since 2007, schools could be eligible for up to $20,000 if they began or extended chaplaincy services.

Williams sued over this — and the case went all the way to Australia’s Supreme Court (a.k.a High Court) — saying this violated religious freedom and went beyond the scope of what the government could do.

Today, the High Court ruled on both of these issues. They said the chaplaincy did not violate religious freedom (what?!)… but the government had no business giving schools money for this.

In effect, it puts an end to the chaplaincy program. Success!


That’s a huge victory for church/state advocates in the country (and around the world). I obviously know little about the Australian legal system, so if there’s more information we should know about this, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

(via Token Skeptic)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://twitter.com/davefagg Dave Fagg

    Actually, it doesn’t put an end government funding of chaplaincy. The ruling was, technically speaking, about the route the money takes. Currently, the federal government pays money directly to different chaplaincy organisations in different Australian states. The High Court ruled that this was not allowed. So, I think that the Federal Government will just give the money to state governments to distribute to the chaplaincy organisations. That will require some legislation to be passed, and some bureaucratic gymnastics.

    But it is by no means the end of government funding to chaplaincy. There is bipartisan support from the main 2 political parties in Australia and I expect they’ll find a way around today’s decision.

    • Paul_Robertson

      It’s already started happening. Australia’s Attorney General has announced that the programme will continue. The federal opposition leader has announced support for the programme continuing and the state premiers have started chiming in with their support.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tina-Loving/100001333023378 Tina Loving

    Well, that sucks, Dave.

  • Boz

    This decision asserts that the executive cannot directly fund school chaplaincy.  School chaplaincy can be funded through legislation that passes parliament.

    With both major parties supporting this initiative, I expect that legislation will be passed soon, and the program will resume.

  • workmx

    Hemant, nice article.

    As you note you are not expert on the Australian legal system.

    So just a note: the High Court’s decision referred to s116  of the Constitution that states that “no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth”.

    The decision found that the chaplains were not Federal Government officers and thus not subject to this part of the Constitution. Thus, technically, they did not did not violate religious freedom.

    • Stev84

      I don’t know what they really argued, but it does violate the religious freedom of the students. It should be about them, not the chaplains

      • workmx

        Nope, it does not  violate the religious freedom of the students at all, because:
         1. they do not have religious rights (Australia does not have a bill of rights);
         2. they can still go to any church they want;
         2. the program has not ceased (and unfortunately looks like it won’t).

        • Paul_Robertson

          1. they do not have religious rights (Australia does not have a bill of rights);
          Sort of. While it is true that Australia does not have a bill of rights, s116 of the Australian constitution does provide for free exercise of religion, at least insofar as federal laws go. Australia does not have an equivalent of the USA’s 14th Amendment, meaning that state governments can interfere with freedom of religion.

          s116

          The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

  • Paul_Robertson

    With respect to the Australian school chaplaincy programme, I think that this temporary victory was the best we could have hoped for. Unlike in the USA, only the federal government is subject to the Australian version of the establishment clause. This means that state governments are free to give as much money to the church as they want. The likely outcome following this case seems to be that the federal government will just route the money through state governments. This solution would have been equally available to them had the court found that the programme violated the “establishment clause”, albiet with the possible need for a little bit of smoke and mirrors.
    It is, however, a disappointing unwillingness from the High Court to take a stand on separation of church and state and I find their unanimous view that a federally funded position need not be an “office of the commonwealth” to be unconvincing. If the court had ruled the funding unconstitutional then it would have been a powerful statement that might have discouraged the government from taking advantage of the workarounds that are no doubt already being put in place.

  • http://thoughtfulfaith.wordpress.com/ Chucky

    > They said the chaplaincy did not violate religious freedom (what?!)… but the government had no business giving schools money for this.

    The Australian constitution sets out the division of power between states and federal government and in particular what the limits of the power of the federal parliament is. The ruling says that the model the Commonwealth used to provide funding is invalid. 

    Relevant:

    http://www.answers.com/topic/nationhood-power

    > In effect, it puts an end to the chaplaincy program.

    No, it doesn’t. It just means they will fund it in a different way (through the states, or by passing legislation). The minister has already said that it will make no difference. Both parties in parliament support the program, so there’s no chance of it ending.

    > That’s a huge victory for church/state advocates in the country

    Actually the court unanimously *rejected* claims that the chaplaincy program violated separation of church and state provisions (section 116). This ruling wasn’t about separation of church and state, and to the extent it was, the court rejected that argument.

  • Paul_Robertson

    I’ve been reading the judgement. It seems that at least one of the judges doesn’t even believe that the “chaplains” are performing a religious function. From Heydon’s judgement:

    This [...] conveys the impression that, at least at this school, neither the NSCP nor the qualification for “chaplains” had much to do with religion in any specific or sectarian sense. The work described could have been done by persons who met a religious test. It could equally have been done by persons who did not.

    Oh really? He goes on to explain that it was just a poor and inaccurate choice of words when naming the program:

    Those who are “school chaplains” under the NSCP’s auspices fall outside [the ordinary definition of chaplain.] Their duties in schools are unconnected with any chapel. They conduct no religious services. [...] The language is inaccurate and may have been counterproductive. Some vaguer expression, more pleasing to 21st century ears, like “mentor” or “adviser” or “comforter” or “counsellor” or even “consultant”, might have had an emollient effect.

    Got that?

    • Stev84

       Sounds like someone took lessons from the theocrats at the US Supreme Court

    • Moosebites

      What a load of disingenuous twaddle.

      The part about language is spot on though – it is inaccurate & counterproductive. But then again, if they had really intended it to be secular they wouldn’t have used the word ‘chaplain’.

      • Paul_Robertson

         Bingo! How the judge could say all that with a straight face is beyond me.

  • Goonies

    Some info on Access Ministries – if this is not religious based chaplaincy, I don’t know what is!

    “Access Ministries delivers around 97% of all specific religious instruction classes in Victorian Primary Schools and is one of the major providers of school chaplains under the Federal Government program started by the Howard Government and now expanded by the Gillard Administration.

    One of the headline acts of the new Coalition State Government in its first budget last week was to increase funding to Access Ministries for administration of the chaplaincy program by $200,000 a year — at the same time as announcing millions of dollars of cuts to public education initiatives. Total funding to Access Ministries will now be $500,000 a year.

    ABC News on Thursday reported a speech by Access Ministries’ chief executive Evonne Paddison, in which she told a conference: “Our federal and state governments allow us to take the Christian faith into our schools and share it. We need to go and make disciples.” “

    • http://www.facebook.com/maik.both Maik Both

      I’m glad you brought up that quote by Evonne Paddison, as that is a very good example what we are up against – a blunt statement of intent, followed by more subtle manipulations to achieve this intent.

      My daughter’s high school in Australia has a chaplain ‘on staff’. The ‘out’  - that the chaplains aren’t ‘government officers’ – is just a loophole. These chaplains are on school property, have offices and use the school resources. Thank goodness my daughter, at least, has little to no time for fairy tales, and all of her ‘problems’ have been resolved with non-religious counsel via appropriately qualified teachers or via support from outside the school.

      • Paul_Robertson

        The wording in the constitution is “office [...] under the Commonwealth”. This distinction (Commonwealth vs government) is important because one of the things the that judgment referenced was the fact that the chaplain reports to the principal, who is a state government employee.

        The other point made by the judges was that the chaplain (in the case at hand) was an employee of Scripture Union, not the government. This presents a loophole big enough to drive a truck through and sets a worrying precedent.

  • Abhoth

    Never mind!  The Chaplaincy program is not about religion at all;  It’s just politicians using public money to gouge votes from particular demographics and there’s nothing wrong with that is there ….?


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