The Queensland Human Rights Commission (QHRC) has elevated concerns about religious-based discrimination in the school chaplaincy program with the state’s education department.
In correspondence with the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA), the QHRC last week confirmed that it had held face-to-face discussions with staff from the Queensland Department of Education on the matter.
The QHRC’s actions follow complaints from the RSA that job advertisements for chaplain positions in government schools, funded under the National School Chaplaincy Program, require that applicants be of a particular religious background.
With the hiring of chaplains being outsourced to faith-based service providers, non-religious people and people of minority faiths who have qualifications in youth work and pastoral care are blocked from filling the roles.
In December 2020, RSA president Meredith Doig complained to QHRC Commissioner Scott McDougall that such practices contravened the state’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1991, which made it unlawful to discriminate against job applicants on the basis of religion.
Commissioner McDougall subsequently advised the RSA that he would write to the education department to “suggest changes [to the school chaplains program] addressing potential contraventions of the [Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination] Act”.
In a letter received last week, the QHRC said it had discussed a number of issues with the department.
“Issues raised in discussions included compliance with the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991, the meaning of genuine occupational requirements, and the definition of a ‘chaplain’ under the Federal agreement where the person need not be of a particular faith,” the letter said.
“The Commission understands the Department was giving further consideration to how these issues were currently addressed within the existing framework of the chaplaincy program and if further improvements could be made.”
The QHRC also said that its ability to take further steps remained “limited” until such a time that it received “a complaint from an affected person”.
The RSA’s lobbying on the matter of religious-based discrimination in the chaplaincy program in other states has put the issue on the radar of state human rights or equal opportunity bodies.
Western Australia’s Equal Opportunity Commission agreed that the practice of restricting chaplaincy positions to Christians constituted “prima facie religious conviction discrimination”. Victoria’s Human Rights Commission also agreed that the program “may be in breach of [Victoria’s] Equal Opportunity Act 2010”.
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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman
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