Australia Pushes Ahead with $244,000,000 Federally-Funded School Chaplaincy Program That Excludes Secular Workers

Ron Williams (below) 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.”

His lawsuit eventually went all the way up to Australia’s High Court, where, in 2012, they ruled that that it was illegal for secular schools to offer chaplaincy services for students through a government program that gave participating schools up to $24,000 each. The judges said no legislation allowed for this.

So the government, under then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard, quickly wrote up and passed legislation to rescue the program.

Earlier this summer, the High Court unanimously struck down that legislation as well. But there was still an opening:

Sydney University constitutional law professor Anne Twomey said on Wednesday that the federal government would be able to continue the chaplaincy program by providing grants to state governments rather than directly to schools.

“This is the only real option. They can do that and they probably will,” she said.

The fate of nearly $244,000,000 allocated for the next five years of the chaplaincy program hung in the balance based on what the government would do next.

Now we know their next steps.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott‘s government announced that the religious-only chaplaincy program would likely continue via those state grants:

In a bid to prevent another High Court challenge, the federal government will provide funding to state and territory governments to administer the scheme. This new arrangement strengthens the hand of the states and could see some demand an option for secular welfare workers or tougher qualification standards.

In a cabinet meeting on Monday, Abbott government ministers explored options to extend the scheme to include funding for secular welfare workers. This would have reversed the government’s existing policy that funding should be restricted to religious chaplains. During the cabinet discussion, Mr Abbott argued that the government should stand by its existing policy. Mr Abbott argued the scheme’s original intent was supporting pastoral care in schools and that should remain its focus. The chaplaincy scheme was also raised in the Coalition party room on Tuesday, where at least two government members argued the scheme should be broadened to include funding for secular workers.

Under the new scheme, chaplains can be of any faith, cannot proselytise and must meet minimum qualification standards.

In effect, though, that means nearly $244,000,000 will be allocated for religious chaplains in secular schools. As it stands, trained Humanist chaplains are excluded from the program and “secular welfare workers” are only being considered for inclusion.

It’s irrelevant that the program is voluntary. The message sent to students is very clear: Look to religious leaders for guidance, not anyone else. Even if proselytization is forbidden, religious groups are being handed a gift at the taxpayers’ expense.

There’s opposition from reasonable voices, but none that the government appears to be listening to:

Australian Education Union president Angelo Gavrielatos said the school chaplaincy scheme would “undermine the secular traditions of public education”. The $244 million funding over four years should be spent on more urgent needs, such as support for children with disabilities, he said.

When did Australia turn into the American South?

(Portions of this article were posted before.)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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