Chaplains in schools challenged

14 September 2010


According to Michael Bachelard in The Age, September 5, Australias school chaplaincy program will soon face a constitutional challenge in the High Court as opposition grows to having government funding paying for God's representatives in state schools. In the recent election both sides of politics pledged $220 million to fund an extra 1000 chaplains.

Not unsurprisingly, the private sectarian sector is in for their share, although given the billions of taxpayer dollars they are now harvesting it is small pickings.

Nevertheless, some of the country's richest private schools have taken $60,000 of taxpayers' money to subsidise their existing chaplains. Xavier College, Brighton Grammar and Presbyterian Ladies College are among the elite schools awarded funds from the public purse.

Although the Australian Psychological Society has slammed the program as ''dangerous'' to children's mental health. at least one poorer school in Tasmania, replaced a qualified psychologist with a chaplain because it was cheaper. In Tasmania, Australian Psychological Association state chair Darren Stops said he was aware of one psychologist who was replaced by a chaplain ''working as a full-time student counsellor'' when she left her school.

The Australian Council of State School Organisations called chaplaincy ''the wrong response and for the wrong reasons''. Chaplaincy organisations rejected these criticisms, saying parents and principals welcomed chaplains, seeing them as a valuable adjunct to other welfare services at schools.

Queensland parent Ron Williams is organising a High Court constitutional challenge to the chaplaincy program, and top-flight Sydney barrister Bret Walker, SC, has agreed to take the case. The constitution prevents any law being passed that provides ''for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance''.

Mr Williams said that while the rules of the program prohibited chaplains from proselytising, the Queensland provider, the biblical literalist Scripture Union, has as its aim ''to encourage people of all ages to meet God daily through the Bible and prayer''.

''It's absolutely, totally out of control here. You can't prevent your children being exposed to chaplaincy,'' Mr Williams said.

Michael Bachelard reports further as follows:


In Victoria, state school chaplains are employed by ACCESS Ministries, the same group that provides non-compulsory religious education. Chaplains in Victoria are better qualified than in other states, and are required to have at least one degree in teaching, theology or counselling, as well as further training in another of those fields.

ACCESS Ministries chief executive Evonne Paddison said that children would rather go to chaplains than to other professions because they were ''independent, significant adults'' who were around full-time at schools rather than for the ''clinical hour'' of visiting psychologists. Chaplains picked up what other professionals might miss, she said, then referred them on.

But Psychological Society spokeswoman Monica Thielking pointed to a recent ACCESS publication that quoted one school chaplain saying: ''At the moment I've got two grade 5 kids on suicide watch.''

She said chaplains were not qualified to deal with such sensitive issues, and when they tried to, it was ''dangerous professional behaviour''.

Dr Thielking said early-intervention programs for children's mental health were too scarce because of lack of money, and the government was wasting money on chaplaincy.

Of the 467 independent schools nationally that were funded under the first three years of the $163 million program, most were low-fee Christian schools. But others are high-fee private schools. Xavier College in Kew, for example, has taken $60,000 from the government to subsidise its Centre for Faith and Service.

DOGS are against the chaplaincy program in State schools because it contravenes the principle of separation of religion and the State. It also undermines the fundamental principle of public education which should be accessible to all with offence to none.



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