Chaplains in schools: probably illegal, certainly immoral

Maurie Mulheron, President

In the recent federal Budget, an additional $247 million has been allocated to the schools chaplaincy program. This brings the total amount of funding for the scheme, since its introduction in 2006 by the Howard Government, to about $1 billion.

Think about it: that is $1 billion of public money handed to religious groups. Not much separating the church and state here.

The origins of the scheme date back to 2004 when the then-prime minister, John Howard, claimed public schools were guilty of not teaching moral values, unlike private schools which were apparently. His comments were met with an outcry by many commentators, teachers, principal groups and parents.

But it laid the foundation for his government to introduce the funding of chaplains in schools, despite the secular nature of Australian society.

Secularism should not be confused with hostility towards religion. Indeed, it is the very opposite.

Secularism allows for the creation of a public common, particularly in relation to our laws and state institutions, in which all faiths and non-faiths can co-exist without fear or favour.

Twice the program has been successfully challenged in the High Court, in 2012 and again in 2014, but the Federal Government has managed to manoeuvre around these decisions.

Associate Professor of constitutional law at Monash University Luke Beck explains the federal government requirement that he believes could result in the program being challenged for a third time in the High Court.

“Getting a job as a chaplain requires a person to be recognised as qualified for the role ‘through formal ordination, commissioning, recognised religious qualifications or endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution’,” he said.

In other words, a person has to be religious and endorsed by a religious group in order to get a job as a chaplain.

He goes on to argue: “Requiring a chaplain to be a member of a particular religion is inconsistent with the nature of public schools. Public schools are secular and open to all. A typical public school has students from a variety of religious backgrounds and students who are not religious at all. Requiring a chaplain to be a member of a particular religion is also illegal.”

Recent media reports have revealed that a group of extremists within the federal Liberal party lobbied for the chaplaincy program to be extended.

These same federal Liberal Party backbenchers voted to rip $1.9 billion out of public schools over the next two years.

Just imagine how much more effectively the money could be used; on student welfare programs, on students with special needs.

The most recent allocation of $247 million is about what it would cost to employ more than 2200 professional school counsellors, with teaching and psychology qualifications, one for every public school in NSW.

When I was a principal, just prior to being elected as President of the Federation, I received coloured brochures and a letter from a religious organisation urging me to sign the school up to a chaplaincy program. Once I signed up, of course, they would get the funding.

I wrote a formal letter as principal back to the church:

“You might be well-served to re-read Matthew 21:12. Jesus recognised greed when he saw it, it’s just a pity his purported followers are so selective in their reading of the Bible.

The ‘chaplaincy program’ is an embarrassment. To think … that as a nation, we have provided more federal money on a program to place religious proselytisers in schools than was allocated for students with disabilities is a perversion.

A truly Christian organisation would recognise this for the obscenity that it is and reject the money. Indeed, the very fact that you seek the funding would indicate that you and your organisation have lost any claim to moral authority.

But the real offence of your letter is the insult to the qualified professional counsellors that are employed in public schools.

We need more of them; qualified, disinterested and professional counsellors, with a teaching background, who can deal with the myriad of issues that young people face including homophobia; pregnancy; psychological, emotional and physical abuse; homelessness, eating disorders, self-esteem problems; behaviour disorders; sexism; racism; poverty; stress; the pressure of study; workload demands; suicide thoughts; self-harming behaviours; bullying; sexual harassment; peer relationships; and the list goes on.

I believe for me to allow untrained people anywhere near our students would be an abrogation of my duty of care.

Just imagine the number of professionals that governments could have employed with the money to deal with these serious issues.

Your challenge is this: reject the funding and show some genuine moral leadership by demanding of the Federal Government that the money be used to employ professional and qualified counsellors.

Find other ways of raising money for your church. Put simply, show some courage and some compassion.”

I might go out on a limb here and offer this thought. If Jesus dropped into Australia today, I’m pretty certain he would applaud the banking Royal Commission (he was never keen on money lenders) and cast out the school chaplains.

After all, he could spot a “den of thieves” from a long way off.