Education minister backs advocacy group for religious school chaplains

Si Gladman / 14 September 2023

The Albanese government’s education minister Jason Clare has backed the establishment of a new ‘friendship group’ that will promote religious-based chaplaincy and the interests of third-party providers that discriminate against non-Christians when hiring for youth worker jobs in public schools. 

Earlier this week, Mr Clare joined forces with Liberal politicians – including some who previously called for more funding for religious chaplaincy in public schools to help children overcome climate change anxiety – for the launch of the new Parliamentary Friends of School Chaplaincy group.

Last year, Mr Clare announced changes to the federal government-funded program to allow public schools the option of choosing either a secular wellbeing officer or a chaplain with religious credentials to perform what are essentially youth worker roles.

However, as the Rationalist Society of Australia has reported, some public schools have been pressuring their school communities to accept the continuation of religious chaplains.

YouthCARE – a provider that only hires Christians for the roles in Western Australia – yesterday published on its website an article and photos of the launch event, accompanied by a subheading: “Friends in high places unite over student wellbeing”.

One of the photos showed Mr Clare in attendance among a number of other MPs and Senators.

Image: YouthCARE

Earlier in the week, the RSA reported that a number of Labor MPs, including Speaker of the House of Representatives Milton Dick, had joined with Christian MPs and Senators from the Liberal Party to support the establishment of the friendship group.

YouthCARE’s chief executive officer Tamsyn Cullingford attended the launch event at Parliament House in Canberra, where she was also pictured alongside Opposition Leader Peter Dutton.

Last year, when asked by a city councillor in Western Australia whether YouthCARE would employ a Muslim, Ms Cullingford said “…we employ people who align with our values” and that “… the people who tend to align with our organisation are Christians”.

While Mr Clare’s National Student Wellbeing Program (NSWP) is explicitly a non-religious program, a new report published by the RSA shows that religious discrimination remains a systemic feature of the operation of the program.

Christian third-party providers continue to dominate the program and use selection criteria that include the need for candidates to be “committed Christians” and “attend a local faith community”.

YouthCARE describes its school chaplain as providing “a sensitive Christian presence in educational communities”. To become a chaplain in a public school through YouthCARE, applicants must show a “demonstrated capacity to sensitively relate the Christian faith in a secular context” and must have “demonstrated active engagement in the life of a Christian Church”.

Among the backers of the new friendship group is Liberal MP Luke Howarth, who, in 2021, wanted extra government funding for religious chaplains to help school children overcome climate change anxiety.

When urged to keep religion out of public schools by a commenter to one of his social media posts this week, Mr Howarth responded: “No. Without people of faith people would be a lot worse off.” In another Tweet, he said chaplains engage in prayer as part of their job.

Earlier this week, the RSA wrote to the principals and Parents & Citizen committees of three state schools in Queensland that did not give their school communities a fair choice of a secular wellbeing officer.

In the letters, RSA president Dr Meredith Doig urged the schools to conduct a new consultation process with their school communities to ensure respondents were properly informed as to the correct nature of the NSWP and to ensure that they have a real choice.

The RSA has repeatedly warned Minister Clare and his state and territory counterparts that religious-based discrimination would remain a feature of the NSWP if long-established Christian labour-hire firms continued to dominate the marketplace of providers.

Follow our campaign on the school chaplaincy issue here.

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Si Gladman is Campaign & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

Image: Jason Clare (Facebook)

All the more reason.