QLD education department claims not to know of discrimination in chaplaincy roles

Si Gladman / 09 May 2024

The Queensland education department claims to be unaware about breaches of the state’s discrimination laws in federally funded school chaplaincy roles, despite having been told on a number of occasions in recent years.

In a letter sent to a Queensland resident who inquired about the religious-based discrimination in the appointment of chaplains to schools, the Department of Education said it did not know of any breaches of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (ADA) by the third-party providers of chaplains.

While the new National Student Wellbeing Program (NSWP) has given schools a choice of hiring secular wellbeing officers or chaplains, applicants for chaplaincy roles must meet religious requirements to gain employment through religious service providers, known as Accredited Employing Authorities (AEAs).

In Queensland, chaplains who work in public schools must be endorsed by a recognised or accepted religious institution. The website of Scripture Union – the largest supplier of chaplains to state schools in Queensland – also says chaplains are “inspired by their Christian faith to serve those in need”.

In its letter to the Queensland resident in February, the education department noted it was a federal government requirement for chaplains to be endorsed by religious institutions.

“The Queensland Department of Education adheres to NSWP program requirements and the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 (ADA) and is not aware of any breaches to the ADA by the Accredited Employing Authorities (AEA) approved by the Department to supply chaplaincy and student wellbeing services to Queensland state schools,” the department wrote.

“Recruitment practices are a matter for each of the AEAs who are contractually required to comply with NSWP program requirements, and state and federal laws, including the ADA.”

The RSA and and other secular advocacy groups, in particular the Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools, have made numerous representations to the state’s education department in recent years about the hiring of chaplains in the program being based on religion.

In late 2022, in response to a letter from the RSA, an education department official wrote that all school chaplaincy providers must comply with all relevant departmental policies and the law, including the Anti-Discrimination Act.

Brett Weeden, Acting Executive Director of Student Wellbeing, Family & Community Partnerships, said: “… organisations must comply with all relevant departmental policies and are bound to uphold the law. This includes adherence to the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religious beliefs and activity when recruiting to positions.”

In 2021, the Queensland Human Rights Commission told the RSA that it would write to the education department “to suggest changes” to school chaplaincy to address “potential contraventions” of anti-discrimination laws. 

Last year, the RSA sent the department a copy of the RSA’s report cataloging the discriminatory selection criteria used by chaplaincy providers.

Early this year, the RSA wrote to all state education ministers to urge them to follow the example of the Australian Capital Territory and remove discrimination from the hiring of workers under the NSWP.

In 2022, Scripture Union told the Queensland government’s review of the Anti-Discrimination Act that it wanted changes to the Act so it could “recruit Christian employees” in order to provide school chaplains.

At the time, the RSA asked then education minister Grace Grace why Scripture Union had been allowed to operate in breach of anti-discrimination laws by requiring people appointed to the roles have Christian credentials.

Earlier this year, the Queensland government released its draft Anti-Discrimination Bill (2024). The bill does not appear to provide any measures that would allow religious providers of school chaplains to lawfully recruit chaplains based on religion under the NSWP.

Follow our campaign on the school chaplaincy issue here.

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Si Gladman is Executive Director 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.