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So what’s the problem with government-funded chaplains in state schools?

Peter James, National School Chaplaincy Association spokesman and Scripture Union Queensland CEO, responds to the High Court’s decision on school chaplains. AAP Image/Dan Peled

Today the High Court struck down the funding for the national school chaplaincy funding program for a second time. Today’s decision throws into question a whole range of federally-funded programs.

The High Court has not objected to chaplains in state-funded schools as such. Rather, it has ruled on the manner in which the Commonwealth funds programs within state and local jurisdictions. Nonetheless, the motivation behind the case in the first place was the opposition of a parent, Ron Williams, to the school chaplaincy program which he describes as funding “religious missionaries” and giving them entry to secular schools.

The High Court’s latest decision must inevitably draw renewed attention to the program, its value, and its future.

There is extensive and vocal opposition to the school chaplaincy program. Objections intensified when it was revealed in the 2014/15 budget that not only would the program continue to be funded, its funding would also be restricted to chaplains from religious organisations alone.

This prevents the use of the money by schools to employ secular counsellors.

Conversely, the school chaplaincy program has proved popular with many schools, their principals, teachers, parents and children. School chaplains are now active in more than 1,650 state schools across Australia as part of student service teams that operate beyond the immediate classroom context.

So what’s the problem with government-funded chaplains in state schools?

First and foremost is the suspicion of any religious presence in a state school system that since the 19th century has prided itself on being secular. Thus the chaplaincy debate is often conflated with debates about religious education in state schools.

Should the Commonwealth fund chaplains in schools? The Commonwealth says no. gato-gato-gato, CC BY-NC-ND

This is largely due to the fact that the same organisations are often running dual programs, coordinating the training and placement of both school chaplains and special religious instruction volunteers.

This suspicion is predicated on the belief that the motivation which impels people of faith to enter into school communities is to convert children to their religion. This is a powerful suspicion as there is an element of truth to it: school chaplains and religious instructors are almost always motivated by a desire to bear witness to God’s love, to the value of faith, even as the vast majority abide by the “no proselytisation” rule.

Moreover, religious belief remains suspect for many Australians, being associated (rightly or wrongly) with discrimination on the grounds of gender and sexuality and more recently with sexual abuse.

There is no inherent wrong with children being exposed to contact with people who believe and practise religions other than those they may know from home. The problem instead has been how to regulate the presence of religion in schools. For much of the 20th century the answer was to exclude it altogether, rather than try to address the issue.

The flipside of regulation is training and development, and a further objection to the school chaplaincy program is that such people are not appropriately qualified for the work they do nor properly regulated in carrying it out. The standards vary from organisation to organisation, the co-ordinating bodies being state-based, and have proved a challenge to maintain and monitor.

Given the size of the program, it is a wonder there have not been more reports of unacceptable behaviour by school chaplains.

In the light of these objections, why would anyone want to keep school chaplains?

Parents and schools are acutely aware of the range of challenges children face in the contemporary world, from bullying, to dealing with new and largely untested technologies, to the risks of abuse and self-harm. The chaplaincy program, however imperfect, represents a material attempt to meet these challenges, recognising that a school has a social role in the formation of a child that goes beyond the door of the classroom and the skills and content imparted there.

The school chaplaincy program taps into a dying volunteer and community service culture, especially in urban areas. Chaplains are usually supported by a committee. This support, which includes fundraising, providing advice, and creating a conduit for communication and consultation, reflects the continuing ability of religious organisations to create networks of volunteers united by a common mission.

Sadly, it seems hard in our 21st-century individualist society to get a community to rally around in support of a secular counsellor.

Above all, it is no accident that Labor and Coalition governments have supported the chaplaincy program. Despite the reservations of many, it is popular, and (presumably) it wins votes.

So where to from here?

First, if the program continues, it must continue to fund secular as well as religious chaplains. It is blatant discrimination to require all school chaplains at state schools to be auspiced by religious organisations.

Second, clear minimum standards and regulations for the qualifications and training of chaplains need to be established by government. The program can never have the full confidence of the public without these.

Third, renaming the program might clarify its aims. The word “chaplain” calls two arenas to mind, the army and the church, and surely schools are neither.

Rodney Croome has recently supported school chaplaincy as an avenue that, with the proper training, could actually provide much needed support for LGBT children and teenagers in schools, and potentially challenge the approach of some religious volunteers to LGBT issues.

Croome presents a welcome challenge to the stereotype of “religious chaplains” versus “the gay/green/atheist lobby”. He instead points to possibilities for cooperation emerging in Tasmania for the benefit of children.

The school chaplaincy program is beset by multiple contradictions. If it continues to be funded, these must be resolved.

School chaplaincy brings together individuals passionate about the care of children but whose religious motivations may, even if only in a handful of cases, cause an unacceptable conflict between the needs of a child and the missionary aims of the chaplain.

School chaplaincy enhances a volunteer spirit and community engagement (just ask a school chaplain how much she is paid, notwithstanding the federal funding to the program). But all too easily it becomes another example of government tendering out services to low-cost religious providers, transferring social obligations from government to religion.

The need for school chaplains has never been clearly explained, making it difficult to pinpoint the qualifications they should have or the activities they should undertake. Yet this vagueness is a welcome relief in educational environments informed by ever-narrowing learning outcomes and an atmosphere of competition and individual achievement.

Properly regulated, properly supported, and free from religious constraints, chaplaincy might represent the human as much as the divine, and a desperately needed return to treating human beings as people rather than customers.

But I’m not holding my breath.

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