Source: The Guardian
The Australian Education Union has joined a chorus of secular groups in opposing the Coalition’s decision to extend the school chaplains program in the 2018 budget.
Tuesday’s budget confirmed the federal government will give $247m over four years to continue the controversial program, which places 3,000 chaplains recognised by religious groups in schools to provide pastoral care.
According to budget documents, the renewed program will have “an enhanced focus on addressing bullying in schools”.
Luke Howarth and dozens of other Coalition MPs have pushed to expand the program, despite warnings from the Rationalist Society of Australia that it “interferes with the right to religious freedom and involves religious discrimination in hiring decisions” because secular pastoral care workers cannot be hired.
The Australian Education Union president, Correna Haythorpe, said: “We do not support the chaplains program.
“Our schools need these funds to invest in programs such as school counsellors and student wellbeing programs in schools. We prefer to see that money invested in our schools more broadly.”
In March the education minister, Simon Birmingham, said he had received “representations from many, many schools around the country, arguing in favour of the continuation of that program”.
Alison Courtice, a spokeswoman for Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools, said the government had ignored “many representations opposing the program and urging, at the very least, that the religious requirement be removed”.
Courtice said the Queensland guidelines allowed for groups employing chaplains to apply for a temporary waiver of minimum qualifications, but “no such waiver applies to the faith requirement … which clearly illustrates that the program is about religion more than what’s best for students”.
Although chaplains are not allowed to proselytise, Courtice noted the same people were allowed to deliver religious instruction when not on chaplaincy hours. She called this “a concerning blurring of the lines, with students potentially failing to distinguish between the roles”.
Secular groups are concerned chaplains can skirt the rules by telling a personal story of embracing religion, inviting guests who encourage children to attend religious services or other religious events, or using materials such as the Qbla app, which contains more overt religious material.
In a 2015 consultation report the Australian Human Rights Commission reported that at almost all the public meetings it held, complaints were raised about the chaplains program.
But the commission refused to review the program in 2018 when the Rationalist Society raised a complaint, citing the fact the review conducted by former minister Philip Ruddock is already investigating freedom of religion.
In April Guardian Australia reported the federal and several state governments had stopped counting complaints against the school chaplains program after responsibility for administering the program was transferred to the states in 2015 as a result of a high court challenge.
In 2015 federal Education Department officials told Senate estimates that in the previous year, 2,312 of the program’s 2,336 chaplains were Christian. The rest were adherents of Islam (13), Judaism (eight) and one each from Bahá’í, Buddhism and Aboriginal traditional religions.