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UPDATED: High Court rules against funding of school chaplaincy program

UPDATED: High Court rules against funding of school chaplaincy program

LAST UPDATED // Thursday, 19 June 2014 17:25 Written by // James Findlay

The High Court has upheld a challenge to the National School Chaplaincy Program, ruling the law allowing the funding for chaplains by the Commonwealth was unconstitutional.

Queensland father, Ron Williams, took the government to court over payments to chaplaincy provider, Scripture Union Queensland, arguing the program was unlawful.

The LGBT community has welcomed the decision by the High Court. Jacqui Tomlins from the Australian Equality Party told MCV:

“This is extremely good news today and we are very happy to hear that decision.

“We believe that the organised funding of the Chaplaincy program is not necessarily in the best interest of our community and we especially have concerns about young LGBTI in schools who may have specific issues but further to that all young people should have access to quality, trained, secular counselors to deal with complex issues that experience as adolescence in schools.”

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the coalition very much supports the program and wants it to continue.

“We’ve only just got this judgment, and we’ll carefully study this judgment and make an appropriate response when we make this study.

“We particularly want the chaplaincy program to continue because it’s one that we invented, it’s one that we supported, it’s one we took to the election, but we have to look at the decision to see exactly what its ramifications are,” he said.

The National School Chaplaincy Association welcomed the Prime Minister’s comments, with national spokesperson and CEO of Scripture Union Queensland, Peter James, emphasising that the ruling was only about the funding model.

“We believe that this decision will enable the Government to put in place an appropriate funding model that meets the court’s requirements, securing chaplaincy for the future,” he said.

“We hope this can be arranged as soon as possible.”

It is news that is greeted with joy by outgoing WA Senator Louise Pratt, who also expressed her concerns for the Coalition’s Chaplaincy Program in her valedictory speech in Parliament on Tuesday evening.

“I am pleased that this program has been found to be unconstitutional. However, we don’t yet know the extent to which the Government is motivated to recreate the program through the States or via some other means,” the outgoing Senator told MCV

“This means that while we can celebrate the ruling by the High Court today, we will have to stay focused on making sure that any attempt to revisit it supports secular youth workers and not chaplains who are linked to ministries which have been improperly proselytising religion and actively discriminating against LGBT young people”

Australian Education Union Federal President, Angelo Gavrielatos, said the AEU has considered the Chaplaincy Program a misguided program from its inception.

“Schools need a wide range of expert trained professionals to support student welfare and educational needs, such as specialist counsellors/school psychologists, as well as staff trained to meet the needs of students with disability.

“The Abbott Government needs to fund all schools properly, not use funding to impose its ideological agendas on schools,” he said.

Lara Wood, Campaign Coordinator for Freedom in Religion in Schools, told MCV, “We believe children's needs are best served by well trained secular workers, who are best able to meet the needs of our diverse and multicultural society.

“The fact that the Federal Government is willing to give a quarter of a billion dollars to fundamentalist Christian organisations, at a time of so called budgetary emergency, seems to privilege one religion over another”

Started by former Prime Minister John Howard in 2006, the program aims to provide religious guidance to students, and has been controversial from its inception.

It is the second time the funding has been challenged in the High Court.

In 2012, Queensland father Ron Williams, took the government to court arguing there was no place for religion in secular schools. The court agreed.

Soon after, the Labor Government changed the legislation to allow secular welfare workers access to the funding, but after the release from the latest Abbott Government budget in May, this decision was controversially reversed.

Principals can apply for grants of up to $20,000 a year to employ a chaplain in their school, of which are prohibited from proselytising for any religion.

The High Court's ruling will mean this funding will no longer go ahead.

Australian Greens Spokesperson for schools and mental health, Senator Penny Wright, said giving $250 million for chaplains was always a bad idea.

"The time for amateurs is over - there is a real crisis in youth mental health.

"When a high school student is more likely to die by suicide than in a car accident, what schools need are professional mental health workers.

"The Australian Greens call on the Coalition to bring to Parliament some legislation that will genuinely address the mental health crisis in our schools by funding professional mental health workers instead of chaplains."


James Findlay

James Findlay

James Findlay is a Melbourne-based journalist and broadcaster who has worked in community media for many years. He has won awards for his work on The Naughty Rude Show on SYN, and can be heard on JOY 94.9's breakfast program, Triple Threat, and Hide and Seek - exploring sex, sexuality and self. He is currently completing his Master of Public Health specialising in Sexual Health at Melbourne University, and a tutor in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University.

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