Thursday, 19 June 2014

School Chaplains

The news of the day is that the Australian High Court has, for the second time, ruled the Commonwealth Government's funding of school chaplains unconstitutional.  This decision has come courtesy of a persistent Queensland litigant by the name of Ron Williams (pictured) who has objected to the placement of a chaplain employed by Scripture Union in his children's school.


I have come across school chaplains in a few ways.  I have a good friend who is a chaplain (government-funded) at a rural school in the community where he is also the Anglican priest.  I have met and interviewed chaplains in the course of a project I worked on a few years ago about youth service delivery.  I also have a leadership role in a local church which employs two chaplains at Brisbane State High School, just across the road from us.  In this capacity I wrote the most recent application to have our permission to place chaplains in the school renewed, and helped negotiate the subsequent contract.

Our church is unusual in two respects.  Firstly, unlike most Queensland chaplains ours are wholly funded by private donations with no government funding.  Secondly, we are one of a very small number of local churches in Queensland to employ chaplains - the overwhelming majority are employed by Scripture Union, a large Evangelical para-church organisation.  However, despite being self-funding our access to the State school system is governed by essentially the same contract as that which governs Scripture Union - a contract which places strict boundaries around the chaplains' role, preventing them from attempting to convert students, from running or organising religious instruction, or from favouring people of any particular religion.  Their role is framed essentially around providing personal, social and emotional support to children - in effect they are intended to operate as school counsellors in the broad sense of the term, although they are not intended to carry out formal counselling and most are not qualified to do so.

The chaplaincy program has been controversial since it was introduced by the Howard Government in 2006.  In the public realm, the controversy has mainly been about the place of religion in Australia's public school system.  The general idea of its opponents is that our public schools (as opposed to church-run schools) should be secular institutions, and that the chaplaincy program breaches this by providing public funding to particular religious bodies to work in schools.  This also seems to be Mr Williams' main objection.

This has been supplemented by other issues.  Chaplains, it is said, are poorly qualified for their role.  The basic qualification for a school chaplain in Queensland is a Certificate IV in youth work, and chaplains can be employed without this if they are undertaking study towards it.  In fact, Scripture Union runs this course (although others do as well) and puts new chaplains through it as a matter of routine.  This qualification could be seen as very low level for the complexity of their role.

If you were to judge by the occasional reports on ABC current affairs, chaplaincy is prone to problems with chaplains overstepping the bounds, either attempting to provide counselling where they are not qualified to do so or overstepping the religious boundaries of their role.  However, in my experience they enjoy quite a broad base of support, not just from religious communities but from parents, teachers and principals with no religious agenda of their own (and even those who are anti-religion in principle) because they provide the kind of support that is not available to students from any other source.

The High Court Judgement is an interesting intervention in this situation.  The Court's role in the matter is constitutional - their job is to determine whether or not the Australian Government is acting within the terms of the Australian Constitution.  This august and somewhat ad hoc foundation document for our nation does in fact have a clause about religion.

116 Commonwealth not to legislate in respect of religion 
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. 

The popular argument against the chaplaincy program is that it breaches the spirit of this clause by favouring a particular religious group (in this case, Evangelical Christians) with funding.  There is no objection, on this view, to funding support workers in schools.  In fact that's a great idea but they should be secular rather than explicitly religious.  The Gillard Government did in fact go a little way down this track by providing an option in the program to employ secular support workers or counsellors in place of chaplains, but most schools have not elected to go down this path.  I suspect the reason for this is more pragmatic than ideological. Scripture Union has a well-managed, easily accessible program for placing chaplains in schools.  There is no comparable non-religious alternative.  

However, the High Court judgement has nothing to do with this clause.  Despite religion being the 'elephant in the room' the actual legal case focuses on the powers of the Commonwealth Government.  Section 51 of the Constitution lists the matters the Commonwealth can make laws about, including the following:

(xxiiiA) the provision of maternity allowances, widows‘ pensions, child endowment, unemployment, pharmaceutical, sickness  and hospital benefits, medical and dental services (but not so as to authorize any form of civil conscription), benefits to students and family allowances;

Any item not listed in Section 51 is a responsibility of the States, and the Commonwealth does not have direct power to legislate about it, although it can make grants to the States and specify conditions for these grants.  The legal question is, does funding school chaplains come under the heading of 'benefits to students' as listed in the clause above.  The Commonwealth argued that it does, Mr Williams (supported, incidentally, by most if not all of the State Governments) argued that it doesn't and that therefore the Commonwealth has no power to provide direct funding for chaplains in schools.  The Court agreed with Mr Williams.

In other words, this is not a case about religion, it is a case about State and Commonwealth relations.  If the program funded social workers or psychologists instead of chaplains, the judgement would have been the same - except that then Mr Williams would never have brought his case.  The court has not found that it is illegal to have chaplains in schools, only for the Commonwealth to fund them directly.  Instead, it will have to fund them via the State governments.

Mr Williams is happy because he won. The States are happy, because they get more power. The Commonwealth is moderately unhappy but not seriously so.  The program does not need to disappear, it just needs to be channeled through the State Governments.  Scripture Union is probably a little nervous but not overly so, especially since its former CEO is now a Queensland cabinet minister.  It seems likely the program will go on much as before, which will make the majority of people in local schools happy too.  As for what Mr Williams will do next, we will just have to wait and see...

1 comment:

little hat said...

The decision may have been about States and Commonwealth rights and responsibilities but if you are taking an action to court you choose to argue it within the framework which will achieve the outcome you want. In this case making the point that religious based chaplains have no place in schools where pastoral care should be provided by non sectarian skilled professionals.