A mixed-up debate
The additional Federal funding of $222m provided in the Budget for the School Chaplaincy Program came as a surprise. With talk of cuts to welfare and other programs, the reasons for allocating more money at school chaplaincies seemed a mystery. It is does not seem to be a priority area of education funding.
In recent weeks, the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) has come under increasing media and legal scrutiny. A Queensland parent has challenged the constitutionality of applying federal funds to such a scheme under s. 116 of the Australian Constitution (a summary of the writ can be found here). Section 116 states that 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 case was recently mentioned in the High Court and is slated for hearing for three days in August. A judgment would be expected in late 2011 or 2012. If the case was upheld, this would result in a cessation of funding.
This is one of those watershed constitutional cases that crops up from time to time. I have argued before that the plaintiff’s challenge has substance on a number of grounds. We shall have to wait for the presentation of the cases and the final judgment.
Debate about the NSCP is fiercest in Victoria, where the main provider, Access Ministries, has come under intense pressure from The Age newspaper. Access Ministries is also a key participant in Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in that state, which is a completely separate program to the NSCP. SRI operates under State legislation in much the same way as Special Religious Education (SRE) in NSW, and like NSW is not funded by the state government. For many years, all religious faiths have enjoyed mandated right to a small part of the school timetable for religious instruction. Thus SRI lessons can be doctrinal in character, keeping with the precepts of any given faith group. The guidelines for the NSCP are tighter, and prevent proselytizing but provide for the ‘providing of guidance on religious, values or ethical matters’ amongst other things (see the Code of Conduct)
What has happened in Victoria is that the NSCP and SRI have both come under attack. A vocal group of people are unhappy that the NSCP is being used as a back-door method of Christian evangelism and disciple-making. Access Ministries is claiming that it is not, that they are sticking to the federal guidelines.
However, there has been a convenient blurring of the lines by the media and secular opponents, which has blended these two programs and as a result the role of religious instruction in the state school system as a whole has been openly attacked.
If the High Court challenge against the NSCP is successful, the future of the NSCP will be sealed anyway. Whether it is right for the Federal Government to fund chaplaincies in the first place is rightly a matter for the High Court to determine, and it will do so in accordance with the law and legal precedent.
The wider attack on SRI in Victoria should be seen against the backdrop of a broad secularist agenda, aided and abetted by sections of the media. The Global Atheist Convention will be held in Melbourne in April 2012 so this movement will get louder in coming months. Christians everywhere, especially those in Victoria, will need to gird their loins for robust public debate and engagement. Our brothers and sisters in Melbourne need our prayers.
Photo Credit: steakpinball