Non-religious youth worker calls for an end to discrimination in school chaplain program

Si Gladman / 06 May 2021

When Juliette Armstrong’s contract as a school chaplain ended and she went searching online for a new role, she kept hitting one big barrier – she was not Christian.

Despite being well-qualified, experienced and passionate about working with kids, the Victorian was later told she had not been considered for a taxpayer-funded chaplaincy position because she was not religious.

“It was really hard to find another chaplaincy position because no-one would hire a non-Christian chaplain. All the contracts have to be facilitated by a third party. And they are all Christian. That’s a condition of being hired. And I wasn’t able to say that I was one,” she told the Rationalist Society of Australia this week.

“[One of the major Christian recruiters] said, ‘You know, everything we do is about Jesus. We would just never hire you,’ even though my qualifications and experience were way above what they were asking for.

“I think it’s a shame because…it’s fantastic work. It’s a great job for somebody who only wants to work for 10 hours a week or 20 hours a week. But a lot of people are automatically cut out of that job area.”

Juliette (pictured) is just one of many Australians who face religion-based discrimination in being blocked from working as a school chaplain under the federally funded National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP).

In its budget, being delivered next week, the Morrison government is expected to again rubber-stamp more than $61 million in taxpayers’ money for the states and the Northern Territory to fund NSCP roles in public schools.

With the chaplains appointed through outsourcing arrangements with Christian supplier organisations, all the job advertisements are limited to Christians.

Under the Gillard government, schools were provided the option of hiring a non-religious ‘secular student well-being officer’. However, the Abbott government removed this option and required all chaplains to have a religious affiliation.

In 2018, Juliette took her case to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, where a settlement was reached.

After the case, the state’s education department changed its rules to expressly state that chaplains “may be of any faith or no faith”. Despite the new rules – which form part of the binding contract with chaplaincy provider organisations – job ads for school chaplains in Victorian public schools still require applicants to be Christian.

“I am surprised [that it is still happening] because if you’re doing that work you’re not allowed to talk about religion. It’s prohibited. It’s not a religious position. It’s a wellbeing position,” Juliette said.

Juliette is calling for an end to religion-based discrimination in the NSCP and for governments to prioritise the needs of children.

“Just get people who are well trained in youth and mental health…because there is so much need for young people to talk to a caring adult about what is going on in their heads, in their hearts and their lives,” she said.

“It can be really hard for them to talk to their parents, their teachers or anybody. It can really, really help to have that unconditional positive regard and have them feel respected, seen and heard. 

“[Well-trained youth and mental health workers] can definitely create really long-lasting, effective change in a young person.”

Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

All the more reason.