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School chaplaincy case: a missed opportunity for secular education

The High Court landmark decision in the school chaplaincy case is an opportunity for reform. Flickr/petelawley

The historic majority Australian High Court ruling that the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) is “invalid” is a gift to the argument for secular public education.

Secular statutes (for example the NSW and Victorian Education Acts) exist at the state level and the Federal Government has no right to overturn them.

Strangely, however, with the gift in their hands Attorney General Nicola Roxon and Federal Education Minister Peter Garrett have immediately defended chaplaincy, publicly declaring their aim to find another funding route.

Why? Heaven (and perhaps the Australian Christian Lobby) only knows.

Government-funded religious instruction

The High Court decision in favour of Ron Williams, a parent concerned over his children’s rights to freedom from religious intrusion, has implications for other school religious programs which infringe both children’s rights and church-state separation. Williams’ efforts will inspire other disgruntled parents to take action on their concerns about discriminatory religious instruction (RI).

Most states deliver a weekly session of RI, in these lessons children are segregated according to religion (or non-religion) and are often treated unfairly. In many schools, where RI was previously delivered by paid chaplains, the once paid position will only now be filled by the extremely committed evangelical missionaries.

RI volunteering used to be an intermittent local activity for aging, well-meaning mums, with time and God on their hands. Courtesy of John Howard’s NSCP, school RI became a national, government funded, permanent mission in public schools.

Thanks to chaplains, RI has also become more militant and more mercantile. This new God squad doesn’t volunteer and they don’t mind if the paper work refers to them as “counsellors” or “student welfare workers”.

Let’s be clear though. These religious employees are paid by Federal government funds channelled through religious providers – despite the High Court’s inability to see the obvious, and didn’t rule that the chaplaincy is “an office under the Commonwealth”.

A new (funding) mission

With their funding now uncertain, chaplaincy providers like Scripture Union and Access Ministries – who also deliver RI, will have to find another pathway for preaching. It is hard to imagine austere state budgets will stretch to cover them.

Scripture Union Queensland (SU) CEO Peter James speaks at a news conference in response to the High Court’s decision. AAP Image/John Pryke

But it is possible that individual schools may be tempted to allow these groups through the school gates in return for other services. Principals, given newly localised authority, might well see the value of indulgences such as a church-donated public address system, discounted church-supplied maintenance contractors, whole buildings for use by special groups or even church-trained teachers.

Of course, this would be in exchange for church access to school grounds, to distribute church pamphlets, to hang church signage on school gates and, in the words of Scripture Union, to encourage “obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ … through the Bible and prayer”.

Parents, be warned. Coming soon to your child’s backpack: biblical literacy and numeracy computer learning programs; invitations to “Jesus Camp”; Christian holiday care; sexist grooming programs (as an alternative to sport); and macho male bonding activities – to shore up the patriarchal and heterosexual order of the world.

All this, neatly packaged at a reasonable price, and benignly promoted as ways to teach “Christian Values” because, after all, public schools don’t teach values do they? Utter rubbish.

Falling behind

In an ostensibly “secular” system, the rise of chaplaincy is confusing. The continued existence of sectarian religious access, with the support of our federal legislators, is bizarre indeed.

Ron Williams’ effort is an example of how an individual parent can defend their religious (and non-religious) freedoms – through the courts. His victory gives state Education Departments pause for thought, and the opportunity to reconsider what it means for schooling to be “secular”.

What happens next, at the federal, state and school level, will determine whether Australia can enter the 21st century regarding its approach to religion in public schools.

The world’s most developed nations deliver compulsory religions and ethics study in public schools from kindergarten through to senior school. They do not segregate children into religious ghettos. Sweden, Norway, Canada, England, Wales, Denmark, and parts of Germany and the United States enable general world religions and ethics education.

This model benefits students by enabling greater tolerance for cultural differences and more secure and cohesive societies. Sweden has been using this model for 50 years. Canada’s Supreme Court last year upheld its mandatory course against an appeal for an opt-out on religious grounds.

Australia lags dramatically behind in this area. Our 19th century RI segregates children on the basis of belief; has limited accountability; is discriminatory in practice through the continuation of Christian privileges; and is not supported by the majority of parents and education professionals.

Secular reform needed

This is a national problem and parents are understandably concerned. Education departments flout international human rights law by treating families differently on religious grounds.

Last month, a NSW parliamentary inquiry recommended the continuation of ethics classes as an alternative to RI. However, this option does not solve issues relating to segregation, unaccountability or unprofessional teaching.

In Victoria, a group of parents has claimed that state funding for Christian-only RI is discriminatory. In Queensland (where state teachers can still offer Bible lessons in school time), a Brisbane mother of three, Tricia Moore has asked for secular alternatives of comparable educational value.

Education Queensland and the Queensland Council of Parents and Citizens’ Associations have blocked Moore’s suggestions. Her school P&C Committee advised that if she didn’t like the RI policy, she should change schools.

This issue should not be passed down to individual schools – but dealt with at state policy level. The high court has so ruled.

Williams’ courageous act highlights the potential for change when a brave parent asks “what does secular education mean?” It also shines a spotlight on the disappointing lack of spine shown by our leading legislators who want to throw the High Court’s gift away - before it is even unwrapped.

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