The Federal Government has given assurances that it will find alternative ways to fund the National School Chaplaincy Program after the High Court ruled on 20 June that the current arrangements are unconstitutional.
The court unanimously dismissed a claim by Toowoomba parent Mr Ron Williams that the program violated religious freedom protections in the Constitution but a majority of Justices upheld his claim that it exceeded Commonwealth funding powers.
About 2700 schools have received funding under the program so far, with the Gillard Government promising to extend it to up to another 1000 schools. Established by the Howard government in 2007 to provide for the spiritual wellbeing of students, it was modified after Labor came to power that year to allow schools to choose to employ either a chaplain or a non-religious student welfare worker.
Federal Attorney-General Ms Nicola Roxon said the only Government program that was challenged and invalidated by the decision was the National School Chaplaincy Program.
“The Government is committed to maintaining funding for important community programs,” Ms Roxon said.
“The Commonwealth has undertaken contingency planning for this decision, as we do for every High Court matter involving Commonwealth funding.”
But leading constitutional lawyer, Professor George Williams of the University of New South Wales, told The Age the implications of the case were massive and potentially could affect any program directly funded by Canberra, including the Roads to Recovery program and direct Federal funding of private schools.
‘’This sets down very significant limits on the ability of the Commonwealth to spend money,’’ Professor Williams said. ‘’I suspect this decision will embolden people to challenge Commonwealth expenditure in other areas.’’
The CEO of Access Ministries, the Revd Canon Dr Evonne Paddison, said her organisation had briefed its legal advisers and was awaiting their advice on the detail of the decision and possible implications.
Dr Paddison also said ACCESS, which provides chaplains to about 250 Victorian schools, was in contact with its state counterparts who were members of the National School Chaplaincy Association.
“Chaplaincy provides care, advice, comfort and support to students and staff and families within the school community, irrespective of their religious beliefs,” she said. “Research consistently shows the role chaplains play is overwhelmingly welcomed by students, parents and teachers.
“We will provide more information on today’s decision when we are able.”
Scripture Union Queensland (SUQ), a defendant in the case and the biggest employer of chaplains in the state, urged the Government to act swiftly to protect chaplaincy funding.
The incoming CEO of SUQ, Mr Peter James, said more than 2000 school communities across Australia have chaplains and many will lose their chaplains if a new federal funding model is not put in place.
“Chaplaincy enjoys bipartisan political support and widespread community endorsement; therefore we are confident in a speedy outcome,” Mr James said.
He said there had been some misunderstanding of the role of chaplains.
“Chaplaincy is about being there to celebrate the good and to support kids during the bad. It is not about propagating religious dogma. It’s about building resilience and treating all students with respect and dignity, and working with other caring professionals to build a strong network of support for students.”
Mr James said chaplains helped all children and youth, irrespective of their background or beliefs, particularly those kids who were marginalised or struggling.
Australian Christian Lobby Managing Director Mr Jim Wallace, said: “We look forward to the Government determining an alternate funding model that ensures no interruption to this very successful program.”
Mr Ron Williams was elated with the ruling. He said he had launched the case to secure a secular education for his children. “If we can’t have a playing field within the public school system for our children that has freedom of religion and freedom from religion, I don’t think there’s anywhere else to go,” he said.