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Schools on waiting list for chaplains in Queensland despite new High Court challenge

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More than 50 Queensland schools are on a waiting list to get a chaplain, according to Scripture Union Queensland.

There are already about 600 chaplains working in close to 65 per cent (800) of schools in the northern state, backed by SU QLD, the largest provider of chaplains in schools in Australia. But there is increasing demand for chaplaincy, and SU QLD’s CEO Peter James says that’s consistent with an increasing need across other states.

“We’re working hard to fill those positions,” he says. “We’re always looking for chaplains.”

Those positions are being filled despite a looming High Court case that seeks to end Federal government funding for school chaplaincy. It’s the second time SU QLD has been entangled in the legal challenge, instigated by Toowoomba father and resident, Ron Williams.

In his first High Court challenge in June 2012, Williams battled the school chaplaincy program, which offers schools up to $20,000 a year to introduce or extend chaplaincy services, arguing Federal funding of the program exceeded the Commonwealth’s executive spending powers under the constitution. The High Court ruled in favour of Williams on this ground, though it dismissed a further ground suggesting the program violated religious freedom.

This [High Court] challenge is no less a risk to school chaplaincy continuing than the last one.

The decision impacted many other government programs including overseas aid, education grants and drought assistance – up to 10 per cent of total Commonwealth funding. In response, the Federal Government introduced emergency legislation to protect such programs, including school chaplaincy.

Late last year, Williams announced his intention to challenge the new funding model. Court dates have now been set for the first two weeks of May.

“We are working hard with our legal team to prepare for this,” said Peter James.

Defending a High Court challenge is expensive, though SU QLD aren’t the only defendants in the case—the Commonwealth of Australia is the first defendant. Ron Williams has suggested on his website he needs a further $250,000 to cover the costs of the court case for his second time around, in addition to funds he has already raised.

While SU QLD would not reveal the cost of their defence, Peter told Eternity it was “unfortunate that we have to divert time and resources to the court case, rather than the work we do supporting children and young people in schools.”

“We will be able to meet the cost of the court case through our generous supporters,” he said.

Despite the long-running battle, Peter says support for the school chaplaincy program has not waned.

“By the end of the first High Court challenge we had 85,000 statements of support for chaplaincy from the community. In this challenge we already have 70,000 returned statements, and many more coming in everyday. We are aiming for more than 100,000 by the end of the case, to show the growth in community support. This challenge is no less a risk to school chaplaincy continuing than the last one.”

If SU QLD and the Commonwealth Government are unsuccessful in May, Peter says there is a risk that chaplaincy will only be available to communities who can afford to fund the services themselves.

“We would still continue to provide school chaplains, but it would be a great challenge to raise the funds required. That puts at risk the chaplains’ caring presence in thousands of schools nationally, as well as jeopardising the many programs run through school chaplaincy that help young people deal with anxiety, depression, grief, loneliness, family breakdown and other issues.”

But despite the looming challenge, Peter says chaplains are resilient.

“Rather than get caught up in the negativity of this case, they’ve been really encouraged to see the community support for chaplaincy. Their hearts are to serve young people, so they just go about doing that in any way they can, and don’t worry about the case.”

SU QLD are asking Christians around the country to sign a statement of support for the school chaplaincy program. You can sign online at backourchappies.com.au.

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