What’s wrong with school chaplains? - Education Matters Magazine
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What’s wrong with school chaplains?

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What is wrong with having Chaplains in schools? As Liberal Senator Corey Bernardi recently said on the ABC program Q&A:

The ethos of our community, the guiding principles of our law, are based and built around Christianity. Now, you don’t have to be a Christian to recognise there are inherent benefits to that.

One thing that is common across all our states’ and territories’ education systems is their commitment to public schools being free, compulsory and secular. So what role is there for religiously trained people – chaplains – to be endorsed by the federal government as the only personnel that they will fund to provide advice and care to children from diverse cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds in need – to young people struggling with issues of sexual orientation and identity, with bullying or family violence, death and trauma?

Australia however is not and never was a Christian country as is claimed. From the beginning of human habitation through to White colonisation until today, Australia has been overtly secular. The first formal church service was held eight days after Phillip landed in Botany Bay on a Saturday. It was remarked then that there were more important things to do than hold a church service on Sunday, like starting a colony! The Australian Constitution prohibits the Federal Government making a particular religion a condition of employment:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth. (Section 116)

The Chaplain program’s essential fault is its compulsory religiosity. As one commentator put it, “the assumption [is] that someone who isn’t religious can’t also be as caring and helpful. Why is the government making it compulsory to put a RELIGIOUS person in this position to get access to funding? The state and the church are supposed to be separated, so state schools will miss out on funding if they refuse to use a religious person as their counsellor/chaplain”.

Peter Garrigan, president of the Australian Council of State School Organisations, which represents the parent bodies of public schools, said the funding was money badly spent. “There is a strong need across the board to be supporting students with disabilities … and putting another $245 million into a chaplaincy program certainly isn’t providing the educational outcomes that we as parents would be expecting.”

The Australian Psychological Society described the decision as “appalling”. “There are no reasonable standards of quality of training for people who take on essentially counselling roles in the school situation,” spokesman and psychologist David Stokes said.

The former Minister of Education Peter Garrett, a devout Christian has changed his mind about Chaplains in schools:

The line between chaplains acting to support students in the provision of general pastoral care and proselytising was too easily crossed… The umbilical cord between churches with their mission to evangelise and chaplain providers who shared this same commitment required significant guideline changes to ensure chaplains did not overstep the mark.

Taxpayers’ money spent in education should employ the best people available to help students, not just the religious.The preferencing of the religious, over the non-religious, for no reason other than their religiousness, is unacceptable in government policy, particularly at a Commonwealth level. At the very least all schools should to given the choice employ non-religious counsellors or welfare workers under this program, not just those that cannot find a chaplain. The National Schools Chaplaincy Program breaches the spirit of the Australian Constitution. It undermines the separation of church and state.

Michelle Grattan concluded that “taxpayers’ money should go to a scheme to employ only those attached to a religion is discriminatory. Discriminatory against non-believers, for a start. And against government schools.”

There have been many complaints about the NSCP with over 40 percent of these substantiated, most relating to the performance of the chaplain. Concerns about chaplains preaching to students however are hard to verify. But the providers of Chaplains in schools are on the record as stating that their role is to:

Facilitate Christian activities on school campuses with voluntary student participation and connect students with local Christian churches with parents’/caregivers’ permission.

Or as Lawrence Kraus renowned theoretical physicist suggested that:

It seemed that they’re not supposed to proselytise. It’s like paying a quarter of a billion dollars to invite clowns into the schools and tell them not to be funny.

Scott Ryan, the parliamentary secretary to the education minister, said student welfare was “core” business for schools. What is the point of having a chaplaincy program, rather than a student welfare scheme, if workers were banned from preaching, proselytising and converting?

If that is the case then the Federal Government should be supporting the employment of fully-qualified and professional welfare officers, and psychologists and not well-meaning unqualified missionaries.

As a former teacher and principal, and now education researcher, I find it unbelievable that our taxes are being used to put religious (and overwhelmingly Christian) men and women into our mutli-cultural public schools to “help young students as they grow and struggle to find their place in life”. If parents opt to send their children to a public secular school then that is what they should get. This is the role for professionally-trained social and welfare workers accredited by the appropriate professional organisation and not a fundamentalist Church organisation like the Scripture Union and Access Ministries.

Dr David Zyngier is a senior lecturer in curriculum and pedagogy at Monash University, Australia.