SCHOOLS: by Bill MuehlenbergNews Weekly
School chaplains and religious freedom
, July 7, 2012
A High Court ruling has declared that government funding of the school chaplaincy program is invalid according to the Australian constitution. This ruling raises many issues and many questions, and is a very important decision indeed.
The Melbourne Age newspaper reported: “The High Court has ruled that the national school chaplaincy program is constitutionally invalid because it exceeds the Commonwealth’s funding powers…. In its decision, one that could cast doubt on other areas of Commonwealth funding, the court … upheld a challenge to the scheme by Queensland father Ron Williams.
“The Howard government introduced the scheme in 2007, offering schools up to $20,000 a year to introduce or extend chaplaincy services.
“One of Australia’s leading constitutional lawyers George Williams said the implications of the case were massive and could potentially affect any program directly funded by the federal government.”
The ruling came about as a result of a challenge a Toowoomba father made about the chaplaincy program. The ramifications of this decision may well be far-reaching, and it is too early to tell just what all the implications of this will be.
The Age continued: “Opposition Leader Tony Abbott told reporters in Queanbeyan that he wanted the chaplaincy program to continue but noted that he hadn’t yet seen the court’s decision.”
Mr Abbott said: “We invented the program, we support the program, we want it to continue. Let’s have a look at the decision and let’s see what the government has in mind. I think it would be a real pity if this program wasn’t able to continue.”
The newspaper report went on to say: “Scripture Union Queensland, Australia’s largest employer of chaplains, which was the defendant to the High Court action, said today’s decision was about a particular historical funding model.”
Said chief executive officer Peter James: “Even though that model might be invalid, it does not keep chaplains from supporting school communities. Instead, it means that a new funding model is needed.” (The Age, June 20, 2012).
Scripture Union Queensland (SU Qld), which was the focus of this case, put out a media release saying in part: “The High Court of Australia [has] ruled the Federal Government’s direct funding model is not valid. The Court left open the option for the Government to continue funding either under new legislation or a grant of funds to the states and territories.
“SU Qld incoming CEO Peter James said the decision meant that the great work chaplains do across the nation will continue as long as the Government acts swiftly to ensure the funding continues.
“He said, although the historical funding model does not work, the court unanimously held there is no problem of ‘church-state’ separation from chaplaincy and that other funding models are possible.”
He said: “Chaplains provide an important child and youth welfare role. This is recognised by the school principals and school communities who have chosen to have a ‘chappy’.
“This decision means that for the vital work of chaplains to continue, we need a new funding model. We will be working with the Federal Government to ensure that happens.”
Mr James said that over 2,000 school communities across Australia have chaplains, and many will lose their chaplains if a new federal funding model is not put in place.
Because it is early days yet, and because I am certainly not a legal expert, my thoughts on this must be both tentative and limited. But a few general remarks can be made.
While a program like this has done a tremendous amount of good, and helped countless children, the new strident atheism which is growing in voice and militancy is a factor to be reckoned with.
This particular Toowoomba father who initiated the case is obviously not a great fan of religion, and it was his objections that have led to this outcome. Such opposition to faith-based charitable works like this is rather recent. In the not-too-distant past, most Australians — even non-Christian Australians — would not have taken offence at such a program.
But the new atheism, popularised by people like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, has resulted in a new activism by the secularists and misotheists. And given that the West is no longer just post-Christian but increasingly anti-Christian, we can expect to see more of these sorts of cases and decisions.
Moreover, given these realities, this case opens up the much bigger issue of just how dependent Christian groups of any kind — be they churches, Bible schools, charities, parachurch groups, and so on — should be on any form of government funding.
The simple truth is, as the saying goes, “He who pays the piper calls the tune”. That is, whenever groups receive state monies, the state can dictate how that money is used, and they can radically curtail or restrict what these religious bodies do and say. They pull the strings, and the groups must act accordingly.
This is a major theological, political and historical issue which cannot be fully entered into here. But one historical point might be noted. Many decades ago, groups like the National Civic Council lobbied governments to extend education funding — called state aid — to Catholic and other independent schools schools.
This was seen as a real justice issue. Simply put, religious parents who sent their children to non-government schools were facing double jeopardy. They had to pay their taxes to support the public school system even though they did not directly benefit from it. Then they had to pay for the Catholic education as well — so they were getting slugged twice.
So, in the 1960s, changes were made and government funding became available for Catholic and other independent schools. That seemed to work well at first; but, as I mentioned, as governments get increasingly secular and hostile to religion, and as various activist groups keep demanding and getting special rights, this then puts real pressure on any religious body getting government funding.
For example, the whole raft of equal opportunity laws and anti-discrimination legislation includes all sorts of pro-homosexual agendas, which many religious schools would not be happy with. Often there are now exemptions for these groups, but they are tenuous at best, and could be withdrawn at any time.
Thus, given this adversarial climate, increasingly religious bodies getting public funds will be asked — or demanded — to do things which violate their own religious principles and scruples.
So what is to be done? That is a question I will not seek to finally answer here, but it is a vitally important question which must be raised.
It seems to me as Christian persecution intensifies, and anti-Christian bigotry becomes solidified, including at government levels, then all real churches and religious groups need to ask themselves some hard questions. How long can they feed at the government trough and not be compromised? At what point must they reject such funding?
Maybe they need to fully trust God for their finances, and not put all their faith — or so much of it — in the state. Those religious bodies which are getting government funds: what will they do? Will they prefer to compromise their convictions and water down their beliefs and practices, simply to keep getting the money?
Or will they take a stand on principle, and renounce such funding in the interests of maintaining pure policy, teaching and practice?
Many religious bodies have not yet reached this place of decision — but they may do so soon. Thus it is incumbent on all of them to think through these matters hard and long, before it becomes too late.
Bill Muehlenberg is a commentator on contemporary issues, and lectures on ethics and philosophy. His website CultureWatch is at: www.billmuehlenberg.com
Dan Harrison and Bianca Hall, “Chaplains safe despite High Court ruling: Roxon”, The Age (Melbourne), June 20, 2012.
Scripture Union Queensland, “Federal Government urged to protect school chaplaincy funding after High Court ruling”, Media Release, June 20, 2012.