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Political fight looms over religious versus secular chaplains in schools


A couple of days into the school chaplain funding debate (round 2) and Labor has landed the first couple of punches.

“Labor does not support restricting chaplains to just religious organisations,” Bill Shorten told Fairfax Media.

Which is clever politics. Labor does not want to be seen to take away chaplains from state schools, it just wants to restore its policy of making sure non-religious chaplains are available for schools who want them.

…many readers will know of chaplains who have done such a wonderful job that the whole school community holds them in high regard.

The Labor policy is an example of putting the minimum change of policy in place to achieve the maximum effect. It positions Labor as still supporting a chaplaincy program of sorts without giving a special place to religion as a criteria for employment.

But it will make the focus of the debate religion rather than the provision of welfare for students.

Importantly, the South Australian and ACT education ministers backed Shorten, and they were joined by the Victorian Opposition. Victoria faces an election later this year and Labor is in a good position in the polls.

Shorten and his state colleagues may have sunk the Federal Government’s best option of continuing the school chaplaincy program that the High Court has now ruled twice as unlawfully funded under the Federal Government’s Constitutional powers.

The former Federal Labor Government had made a change to the arrangements for chaplains in 2011, with schools getting the chance to appoint a “secular student well-being officer”. In 2013, 3541 schools participated in the program with 2851 chaplains employed, and 512 secular workers.

The chaplaincy program’s religious chaplains are overwhelmingly Christian, with small numbers of Buddhist, Muslim and Jewish chaplains. The first two groups are under-represented among chaplains in relation to their proportion of Australia’s population.

The Federal Government is understood to be investigating the best way to continue the chaplaincy program. They may find a way forward that does not need the states to handle the funding—which would undercut the force of Labor’s policy.

Given the nature of the debate, the Labor option will result in a decline in the proportion of religious chaplains. It will only take a small, determined group in some schools to convince a Principal not to use a Christian provider.

On the other hand, many readers will know of chaplains who have done such a wonderful job that the whole school community holds them in high regard.

Eternity knows one chaplain in a very multicultural school who first came to Australia as a missionary. Her first involvement at the school was as a volunteer in the uniform shop, which she followed up serving on the Parents and Citizen’s Committee before becoming a chaplain. She has worked so well and winsomely that “broad consultation” with the community groups at her school led to the school council endorsing her position.

After a breast cancer diagnosis she found out how much the school valued her.

“When I was diagnosed I didn’t want to see a lot of people,” she told the local paper.

“People kept sending me cards and photos and keeping me connected. This made it easier for me to go back to the school.” This year she was awarded the local council’s International Women’s Day award.

This sort of chaplain will be around for a long time.