Friday, June 22, 2012

School Chaplaincy Case: A Missed Opportunity for Secular Education

English: Entrance of the High Court of Austral...
Entrance of the High Court of Australia located in Parkes, Australian Capital Territory (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Catherine Byrne, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University, on The Conversation:

The historic majority Australian High Court ruling that the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) is “invalid” is a gift to the argument for secular public education.

Secular statutes (for example the NSW and Victorian Education Acts) exist at the state level and the Federal Government has no right to overturn them.

Strangely, however, with the gift in their hands Attorney General Nicola Roxon and Federal Education Minister Peter Garrett have immediately defended chaplaincy, publicly declaring their aim to find another funding route. Why? Heaven (and perhaps the Australian Christian Lobby) only knows.

Government-funded religious instruction

The High Court decision in favour of Ron Williams, a parent concerned over his children’s rights to freedom from religious intrusion, has implications for other school religious programs which infringe both children’s rights and church-state separation. Williams’ efforts will inspire other disgruntled parents to take action on their concerns about discriminatory religious instruction (RI).

Most states deliver a weekly session of RI, in these lessons children are segregated according to religion (or non-religion) and are often treated unfairly. In many schools, where RI was previously delivered by paid chaplains, the once paid position will only now be filled by the extremely committed evangelical missionaries.

RI volunteering used to be an intermittent local activity for aging, well-meaning mums, with time and God on their hands. Courtesy of John Howard’s NSCP, school RI became a national, government-funded, permanent mission in public schools.

Thanks to chaplains, RI has also become more militant and more mercantile. This new God squad doesn’t volunteer and they don’t mind if the paper work refers to them as “counsellors” or “student welfare workers”.

Let’s be clear though. These religious employees are paid by Federal government funds channelled through religious providers - despite the High Court’s inability to see the obvious, and didn’t rule that the chaplaincy is “an office under the Commonwealth”.

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