Those of you who attended the Global Atheist Convention (or have been following the news about the ongoing issue in general) may recall Leslie Cannold’s request from the stage, for people to join the Facebook group for Australians for Separation of Church and State and donate to Ron Williams, who started the Ron Williams Vs Commonwealth of Australia, a High Court challenge to the National School Chaplaincy Program:

Williams’s desire is simple – to pull the plug on the program that, through “chaplaincy service providers” such as Scripture Union (“Christ’s ambassadors on the front line of ministry”) and Access Ministries (“transform[ing] this nation for God”), is feverishly trying to spend the $437 million of Commonwealth funds to put a chaplain in all the nation’s schools.

He didn’t win on both grounds that he challenged the scheme on – but it was enough. To quote Peter Black from Twitter:

the high court’s reasons in williams v commonwealth have nothing to do with the separation between church and state (s 116)… rather williams v commonwealth is a technical judgment on the scope of the executive power under s 61 of the constitution. 

Chaplaincy program is ‘constitutionally invalid’: High Court (Sydney Morning Herald):

Mr Williams, a father of four from Toowoomba, challenged the scheme on two grounds: that it violated religious freedom protections in the constitution, and exceeded Commonwealth funding powers.

….the court found that school chaplains were not Commonwealth employees, but rather were engaged by an external organisation, Scripture Union Queensland, and the Commonwealth did not enter into contractual or other arrangements with the chaplains.

But by majority the court held that the funding agreement between chaplaincy provider Scripture Union Queensland and the Commonwealth was invalid because it was beyond the executive power of the Commonwealth.

News is still ongoing; I recommend keeping an eye on Leslie Cannold’s Tweet stream for more news as it happens. A good summary of the case has been previously given by Leslie in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Edit: High Court school chaplains case now published – 217 pages and 73,000 words

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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.

  • Cuttlefish


    Now what?

    • Kylie Sturgess

      Just got off the phone with a potential interview in my town newspaper – apparently this means the STATES (if they can find the several MILLION it requires!) will have to run the programs. If they want to…

      • Mandrellian

        Considering how notoriously wasteful states are with their spending (my friends and I have more than enough experience working for govt depts to know it’s more or less a given that even a tray of sandwiches will be over-budget and over-time), I’m not sure if it would surprise me or not if states went ahead anyway and carved up other programs to pay for this bollocks.

        • Kylie Sturgess

          *headdesk* Now I’m depressed…

  • Timberwoof

    Cynical me says that this ruling is just asking for a weaselly solution. To me it means, “this is not illegal under the doctrine of separation of church and state; you just had the wrong funding model. Find a legal source for the money and you can have the program.”

    • Kylie Sturgess

      Good question – but finding state funding is going to be difficult, I think…

  • Chucky

    It is not just that the case didn’t win on the section 116 claims. The court unanimously rejected that part of the case.

    • Kylie Sturgess

      Yes, the AFA released a statement:
      The ruling was that the Federal Government was exceeding its Commonwealth Powers in improperly funding the Chaplaincy program.

      That the judges lightly dismissed the complaint about s. 116 by stating, “The chaplain did not enter into any contractual or other arrangement with the Commonwealth.” This is true but they did enter into ‘contractual arrangement’ with a religious organisation which supplied religious chaplains to state
      schools by proxy. The difference is pedantic to say the least.
      This poor judgement was made after the judges found that the Commonwealth was acting illegally.
      The outcome of this confusing circumstance is that s. 116 of the Australian Constitution is still not properly defined.
      It does not detract one iota from the fact that Ron Williams put his life and financial security on the line for all of us and partly won the case. He still needs our financial assistance even though the Commonwealth will pay towards but certainly not all, his legal costs.

      It was a win for secular Australia as it has publicly highlighted the wrong that is the Federal Government supported Chaplaincy program.

  • Zeno

    Oh, good! Our prayers have been answered! ;-)

    (It’s about time that ridiculous program got ash-canned.)