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.

Confused debate

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

Dr Karin Sowada is currently CEO of the Anglican Deaconess Ministries Ltd. She served as a Senator in the Commonwealth Parliament from 1991-93 and is a member of the Diocesan Social Issues Executive. Karin is also an archaeologist specialising in ancient Egypt.

Comments (12)

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  • Brett Peatman
    May 19, 11 - 4:09am
    As a CRI teacher in Victoria I have noticed several differences from SRE in NSW. In Victoria the Christian RI and Chaplaincy programs are coordinated by ACCESS ministries. Under the Access guidelines for CRI teachers must teach the set syllabus and are educators NOT evangelists, they state that 'within the government school there is no place for overt evangelism.' At the heart of these regulations is the desire to show respect for people of all beliefs. Most of my classes love their CRI time each week and indications are that the majority of the parents are supportive.
  • Danny Maher
    May 19, 11 - 9:58am
    My Children attend a public school in Queensland where the Chaplain and indeed the chaplaincy is a really welcome part of school life. The school has regualr RE as well but the chaplaincy programme is as it should be and that is about supporting children who may be encountering difficulties in aspects of their life. It is not an evangilisation exercise and nor should it be.I have a staff member who has become a Christian because she was exposed to a school chaplain who as she says didn't "shove it down my throat but were there to support me and I got to witness living christianity"

    Sometimes we need to do the "walk rather than the talk"
  • Zillah Williams
    May 22, 11 - 6:29am
    Christopher Bantinck, writing in the Weekend Australian (“Chaplaincy program participants beyond a prayer” May 21-22, p.14)complained that school chaplains were "volunteers" and had no qualifications for teaching.

    We've got so hung-up on academic qualifications! It's values, not degrees, that a Christian school chaplain should impart – and they do, by example.

    By all means let there be a review of the chaplaincy program (as Bantinck wants) but a man or woman doesn't have to be an academic to impart the love of God and the power of the Christian gospel to our children.

    Thanks, Karin, for pointing out the area of confusion which exists in this debate – between the teaching of religion in schools and the school chaplaincy programme.
  • Grant Hayes
    May 24, 11 - 3:02am
    Zillah,
    It's values, not degrees, that a Christian school chaplain should impart – and they do, by example

    but a man or woman doesn't have to be an academic to impart the love of God and the power of the Christian gospel to our children.

    And a man or woman doesn't have to be a Christian to impart the best values to children. Your assertions imply that Christians - simply by being Christians - have a unique monopoly on values.

    Imparting the "love and power of the Christian gospel" to children in state schools is tantamount to evangelism. If the government is funding such impartation, then it is funding evangelism, and therefore it is effectively blurring - if not dissolving - the separation of church and state.

    So it's not only the opponents of Christian privilege in schools that may have blurred distinctions. Christians themselves - as your post shows - seem to have trouble distinguishing between the inculcation of values and sectarian indoctrination. For the non-Christian/non-religious, there is a difference.
  • Stephen Davis
    May 24, 11 - 3:41am
    Grant, overall you are correct but I think Zillah was coming from the angle that if a person imparts values and love, then the recipient of that love will be more partial to the platform that the person doing the imparting bases their values and love on. Indirectly this could be construed as a form of Christian witness especially if the person doing the imparting is actually a Christian.
  • Grant Hayes
    May 24, 11 - 4:31am
    Stephen,
    I think Zillah was coming from the angle that if a person imparts values and love, then the recipient of that love will be more partial to the platform that the person doing the imparting bases their values and love on.


    True enough. And such convert-grooming in a secular state institution should not be privileged with government funding. That the government does so is a tacit establishment of a de facto state religion.
  • Stephen Davis
    May 24, 11 - 4:40am
    I suppose if you can establish a definitive link then I do agree with you Grant. As an example just say I am a chaplain in a school and the government funds my stipend or wages. Now if I am spending ALL my time disussing religion then you have an open and shut case. It would get very hard though if the recipient of the chaplaincy started asking the chaplain questions of a religious nature. Jumping ahead then, how far do you go in trying to ensure that there is absolutely no religion entering this arena period? Then again considering some of the things that governments fund these days does this issue really present a problem? Personally I do not think so but I do respect the opinions of those who would.
  • Grant Hayes
    May 24, 11 - 5:58am
    Stephen,
    just say I am a chaplain in a school and the government funds my stipend or wages. Now if I am spending ALL my time disussing religion then you have an open and shut case.

    If the chaplain's principal qualification for being there in the school is their Christian enthusiasm (with or without formal theological training), then the only thing they're particularly equipped to impart is their Christian faith. And that's evangelism.

    If a chaplain is mainly required to be a kindly, listening ear, approachable informal counsellor, "safe" adult role model, activity-organiser, etc., why is a specifically Christian commitment necessary? Aren't these things, in fact, part of the best-practice of any schoolteacher, Christian or not?

    It would get very hard though if the recipient of the chaplaincy started asking the chaplain questions of a religious nature.

    Indeed, quite a temptation for the keen gospeller. I daresay such a level of influence is what most evangelical chaplains would be praying for - that and "opportunities" to "plant seeds of the gospel" in suggestible young hearts. Let's be honest, such is the chaplain's agenda, for better or worse.

    Christians have ample opportunity to get their message across without privileged access to state schools.
  • Grant Hayes
    May 24, 11 - 6:09am
    Stephen,
    Then again considering some of the things that governments fund these days does this issue really present a problem?

    Only if one values the principle of church-state separation.

    Of course, the Australian Commonwealth could always formalise its marriage to Christianity, replacing the current de facto arrangement ...
  • Zillah Williams
    May 24, 11 - 11:15am
    And a man or woman doesn't have to be a Christian to impart the best values to children.


    Grant, my point was simply that academic qualifications don't necessarily equip a person to be able to impart good values to a child. God can use the faith of people with little or no education to impart good values and demonstrate his love and power. We could all think of examples.

    On the other question – the place of Christian influence in secular schools – since our secular society is grounded in Judeo/Christian principles, it means our schools are part of that heritage too, and that values shaped by that heritage can't be out of place in our secular schools. A state school divorced from those values would be rather horrid.
  • Stephen Davis
    May 24, 11 - 9:45pm
    Grant, you have some good points but try as hard as you will, you will never separate the religious content out of this area. I think Zillah's last paragraph is spot on and as far as I am concerned wraps up the matter quite well. I think anyone would be very hard pressed to argue succesfully against what she has said in her last paragraph.
  • Grant Hayes
    May 25, 11 - 3:24am
    Zillah,
    On the other question – the place of Christian influence in secular schools – since our secular society is grounded in Judeo/Christian principles and that values shaped by that heritage can't be out of place in our secular schools. A state school divorced from those values would be rather horrid.

    If the secular society is already imbued with "Judeo/Christian" principles, then supplying secular schools with evangelical, convert-grooming chaplains is redundant. A state school without a chaplain is not "divorced" from "those values" which are part of the social fabric anyway.

    A further point: the principles that underpin our secular society and education system are not exclusively "Judeo/Christian". For example, there's also a lot of influence from pre-Christian "pagan" Graeco-Roman culture. Now, according to your line of reasoning, "Judeo/Christian" cultural heritage justifies evangelical school chaplaincies. If that's the case, then the state school should provide the same sort of access and presence for our significant non-Christian cultural heritage. So, in the interests of fairness, you should have no objection to pagan ritual specialists (no merely academic qualifications necessary) conducting sacrifices to Zeus at the school athletics carnival, and hymns in praise of Dionysos before performances of the school play, and invocations of Apollo and the Muses at school art exhibitions.

    What's good for the goose...