Retired principal launches religious discrimination complaint over chaplaincy

Si Gladman / 18 February 2022

Retired school principal Karen Garn-Jones believes that she is the “perfect candidate” to work as a chaplain in Western Australia’s public school system, yet she can’t apply for a role because she is not religious.

Ms Garn-Jones (pictured) lodged a complaint with the state’s Equal Opportunity Commission last year, claiming that the federal- and state-funded chaplaincy positions in public schools discriminated based on religious grounds. The work of chaplains, under the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP), is not religious and includes tasks like running breakfast clubs and student welfare initiatives.

Western Australia’s Equal Opportunity Commission last year told the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) that it it was concerned that the practice of restricting chaplaincy positions to religious people constituted “prima facie religious conviction discrimination”.

The Commission interviewed Ms Garn-Jones in November in relation to her complaint and confirmed to her this week that it had asked the Director General of the Department of Education to respond to the allegation of religious-based discrimination.

Ms Garn-Jones, who worked in the public schools system for more than 30 years, told the RSA recently that she believed her work experience and qualifications made her the perfect candidate to work in the role. 

“Well, it turns out that, basically, it doesn’t matter how good you are for this job, no matter how suited you might be for this job and how well the job might fit you, if you cannot sign on the line that you are a regular attendee of an aligned church, you aren’t qualified for the job,” she said.

“Well, I find that a bloody furphy and an insult. It means that I have kids in schools that I know are very very high risk that are not getting the sort of service provision that everybody is being told that our top tax dollar is going to.”

The RSA has long called for the removal of the religious-based discrimination in the NSCP.

In a similar case, Victorian non-religious youth worker Juliette Armstrong was blocked from a taxpayer-funded chaplaincy role in public schools because she was not Christian. In 2018, she  took her case to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, where a settlement was reached.

In Western Australia, the McGowan government has insisted that taxpayer-funded chaplains in public schools do not need to be people of faith, despite his own government’s policy stating otherwise.

The federal government provides millions of dollars to the state education department under the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP), and the state government commits additional money on top of that.

The education department outsources recruitment of chaplains to three providers, two of which are Christian and all of which require that chaplains be from a faith background.

Ms Garn-Jones said many principals and teachers would welcome the positions being opened up to the best possible candidates based on qualifications and experience, and not religious requirements

“There would be a lot of support. As part of your public sector service in the education department, a principal cannot come out and speak against the department, nor can a teacher. They can be dismissed for doing that,” she said.

“Some of them are absolutely happy with their arrangement. And, look, there are some fantastic chaplains doing a wonderful job. But the point is: everybody should be able to apply for this job – everybody who has the skills, the passion and the right values for the job. It’s a government-sector job.” 

Since January, thousands of Australians have signed an online petition calling for the next federal government to fund appropriately qualified and experienced youth workers, instead of faith workers, in public schools.

At our RSA Webinar on Wednesday 23 February, educational psychologist Dr Marilyn Campbell will discuss the mental health challenges facing schoolchildren today. She will share her views on how Australia can do better at supporting children in schools, including through changes to the National School Chaplaincy Program. To attend the webinar, register here.

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.