The federal education department says it expects religious chaplains to be able to help “create a safe place” for students who want to discuss gender identity and sexual orientation in public schools.
At Senate estimates last week, Greens Senator Penny Allman-Payne (pictured) asked officials what actions the department had taken to provide support for students that were uncomfortable accessing help from religious chaplains.
She noted that last year’s evaluation into the previous National School Chaplaincy Program highlighted the risk that the religious affiliation of chaplains put up barriers to some students, especially LGBTIQ students, seeking support.
In response, Meg Brighton, Deputy Secretary for Schools, said that changes to the program meant that wellbeing officers were now also available under the new National Student Wellbeing Program (NSWP).
However, she said the department expected both chaplains and wellbeing officers to support students who want to have discussions on sexual identity and gender issues.
“It’s our expectation that both wellbeing officers and chaplains are there to support the wellbeing of students in schools. That goes across the spectrum, including kids who want to have a conversation about their sexual identity or their gender identity,” she said.
“So we would expect that chaplains and wellbeing officers will be leading and supporting those students to create a safe place to have those conversations.”
As the RSA reported in January, the dandolopartners evaluation revealed that students raised a number of concerns about religious chaplaincy, with the perception of religious judgmentalism a barrier to care and leading some students to refuse to engage with the chaplains.
The report quoted one student as saying: “I am bisexual and there is no way I would want to talk to our Chaplain about these issues as she is a Christian and I do not trust her to give me good advice.”
Another student said the chaplain “makes kids uncomfortable because they want to push their religion.”
Senator Allman-Payne noted that, despite the Albanese government’s policy change to allow schools to choose a secular wellbeing officer, in many public schools students would only be provided a religious chaplain.
She asked Assistant Minister Anthony Chisholm whether the government would ultimately transition to a program that provided just secular support.
“I am unaware of any further changes that the minister has planned – obviously, than what we made not long after we came to government,” said Senator Chisholm.
“But we also understand that the evaluation also recommended including student wellbeing officers in moving away from the chaplaincy title.
“…if there are any further decisions the minister makes, I’ll make sure you are aware of them.”
In July, the RSA reported that public schools in Queensland have been pressuring their parents and school communities to accept the continuation of religious-based chaplaincy instead of providing them with a choice of secular wellbeing officers.
Former Senator and equality rights campaigner Brian Greig has warned of the threat to LGBTI youth posed by religious chaplains, telling the Sunday Times in Western Australia in 2021 that it was a “deeply worrying” situation given that many chaplains were sourced from religious organisations with long histories of homophobia and transphobia.
A report, published in September by the RSA, has confirmed that religious discrimination against youth workers remains a systemic feature of the operation of the NSWP, with the typical recruitment requirements for staff to the program specifying that applicants be Christian and have various religious credentials.
The ACT, under a Labor-Greens government, is the only state or territory to refuse to place religious chaplains into its public schools under the NSWP, saying that the secular nature of its public schools prevents the funding of religious roles.
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.
Image: Senator Penny Allman-Payne (Facebook)