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Government school chaplain payments unlawful: High Court

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Related story: National School Chaplain Program to continue despite High Court funding ruling

The High Court has ruled that the federal government’s payments for school chaplains are unlawful, in a major blow to the thousands of chaplains around Australia.

Today’s landmark ruling puts into doubt billions of dollars in federally funded schemes, including the Commonwealth’s National School Chaplaincy Program and $243 million allocated to the program over the next four years to fund 2900 chaplains.

The Court was unanimous in today’s decision that new legislation that allowed the federal government to pay Scripture Union Queensland to provide school chaplains was invalid.

The Court said the services of a chaplain or welfare worker under the new law was not a provision of “benefits to students” within the Constitution and breached the Commonwealth’s executive power.

The National School Chaplaincy Association said in a statement that the case was not about the validity of school chaplaincy but only about the particular federal funding model and it hopes the Federal Government will again act swiftly to protect this vital and beneficial program for students.

The ruling is a victory for Queensland father Ronald Williams who first brought the case against the Commonwealth and SUQ in 2010.

Williams wanted the federal government’s funding for chaplains at the public school his four children attended declared unconstitutional, and a breach of the separation of church and state. He was not successful.

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However, at the time the High Court agreed with Williams’ contention that the Commonwealth did not have the proper jurisdiction to fund the program because it had not sought to legislate it through Parliament.

Williams launched a fresh legal battle in 2013 after the federal government introduced a new law that gave the legislative approval for Commonwealth funding of programs like the NSCP.

Williams tried again to have the Commonwealth funding of the NSCP deemed unconstitutional as well as federal government’s special legislation.

He was backed by the State governments, who say the Commonwealth funding scheme used for the NSCP and more than 400 other programs is bypassing them.

During the proceedings the Commonwealth pointed to the place of chaplains in state schools to help the Commonwealth meet its national educational objectives.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the government will review the judgement but the Coalition supports the policy and wants it to continue, reports Fairfax Media.

SU QLD is part of a network of chaplaincy providers that includes Access Ministries in Victoria, Genr8 Ministries in NSW and Schools Ministry Group in South Australia.

Former Prime Minister John Howard introduced federal funding for school chaplains before the 2007 election.

SU QLD and the NSCA are conducting a press conference at 1pm today. We will update this story after that time.

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