Published 26th June 2014
Opinion: Chaplaincy Program error-prone from the outset:
Chaplains in public schools; it’s been a contentious issue since John Howard introduced the idea in 2006. Last Thursday, and for a second time in two years, the High Court ruled that funding for the National Schools Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) is unconstitutional.
Not only is the funding invalid — a model amended by the Gillard government in 2012 — but the High Court also determined the NSCP is of ‘no benefit to students’. It fails the ‘benefits’ test set by the Constitution, which is why they struck it down.
While many reasons have emerged why school chaplains are a bad idea, it appears the federal government could have anticipated the High Court’s unanimous decision. In what might seem a calculated move to avoid closure of the scheme, funds appear to have been provided to church organisation to keep their chaplains in schools until December.
Following the Court’s ruling, an urgent waiver of funds was issued by the government to chaplaincy providers. The concern is that waiver includes an estimated $37 million of unexpended monies for the half-year, July to December.
If this is the case is raises serious questions, in a tight budgetary climate, why the government would effectively ‘donate’ this large amount to church groups at a time when the High Courts deems such funding unconstitutional.
The chaplaincy program has been publicly unpopular. In a post-High-Court poll of more than 19,000 respondents, 82% opposed churches placing their untrained volunteer chaplains into schools across the nation.
Before parent minorities react, they might consider some anomalies of this scheme. From the outset, NSCP has been a political and ideological program championed by Christian MPs and church lobbyists. It was never child-focused in any way, and no recognised study has been publicised that states exactly why unqualified chaplains are needed in schools.
More than $670 million has been spent on what is a thinly veiled agenda to Christianise public school children.
Exactly what is the role of chaplains? What do these church volunteers say to students who might be confused by their own sexuality, or have valid questions about sex and contraception, or trouble at home on issues over religious beliefs?
Church volunteers, with no professional training, should not advise on such issues. But clearly they do.
WA Senator Louise Pratt spoke recently in parliament on this very issue; students stigmatised for their sexuality which has been exacerbated by unqualified chaplains. She referred to a survey of more than 2,000 students, with 15% expressing sexual-identity difficulties and who were confronted by religious chaplains who were openly anti-gay.
With the High Court ruling NSCP invalid, the funds cannot be used elsewhere. Based on ethics, the unexpended $36m should not finance the Chaplaincy Program to December, in defiance of the High Court.
Any new scheme will require a whole new appropriation process. But before any new program is devised there needs to be a comprehensive study of what schools — and their students — really need. The next $670 million will be better spent on students, not religion.
Director, Plain Reason