Two-week public consultation into school chaplaincy insufficient, says RSA

Si Gladman / 01 September 2022

A two-week public consultation being held as part of an evaluation into the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) is insufficient, says the Rationalist Society of Australia.

RSA president Meredith Doig says she is “deeply disappointed” with the federal government’s decision to give the community only two weeks to respond to an online survey evaluating the “effectiveness” of the program.

On Tuesday, the Department of Education launched an online survey into the NSCP on its website, with a closing date of 13 September. At the end of the questions, participants can also upload a written submission.

The department is conducting the survey as part of a broader evaluation into the program ahead of a new Project Agreement between the federal government and the states/territories to come into effect next year.

But Dr Doig says a full parliamentary inquiry is now needed into the program that has cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars and has raised concerns among state human rights and equal opportunity commissioners about religious-based discrimination.

As reported by the RSA, human rights and equal opportunity commissioners in Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia have raised concerns about the religious-based discrimination that has prevented non-religious people from being employed under the program. Last year, for example, Western Australian Equal Opportunity Commissioner John Byrne said the practice of restricting chaplaincy positions to Christians constituted “prima facie religious conviction discrimination”

Claims of inappropriate behaviour by religious chaplains have dogged the program, including instances of chaplains referring to homosexual activity as a “serious sin”, urging parents not to have their children vaccinated for COVID-19 and telling an anorexic child she was “hungering for the word of God”.

“The Australian public has long been concerned about the school chaplaincy program and the taxpayer-funded placement of religious chaplains in our public schools. We are deeply disappointed with the government’s approach to this public consultation. Australians deserve more than two weeks to provide feedback,” said Dr Doig.

“We strongly believe there needs to be a full parliamentary inquiry into the school chaplaincy program. We will be writing to a number of MPs and Senators to urge them to pursue a full parliamentary inquiry instead.”

Dr Doig is urging secular-minded Australians to take part in the online survey in the meantime.

In a letter to education minister Jason Clare last month, the RSA welcomed the government’s decision to re-open the program to secular welfare officers but raised concerns that religious-based discrimination would continue.

Dr Doig told Mr Clare that the RSA remained “deeply concerned” that, without reform to the existing outsourcing arrangements, continued dominance of religious-based labour-hire organisations would leave schools with little choice in who they employ under the program.

“The NSCP has, for many years, generously funded the administrative structures of Christian labour hire firms. Organisations seeking to provide qualified workers hired on a non-discriminatory basis are not competing on a level playing field,” she wrote.

“The market is essentially a monopoly, dominated by these Christian labour hire firms. As a result, schools have seriously diminished market choice and are obliged, in nearly all instances, to continue using these firms to appoint people to their wellbeing and pastoral roles.

“These firms require the people they recruit and offer to schools to have religious credentials, such as formal ordination, commissioning, recognised religious qualifications or endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution. So schools have no real choice.”

Dr Doig urged Minister Clare to work with his state and territory counterparts to transition to a better wellbeing support program that puts the interests of schoolchildren ahead of the interests of religious lobby groups.

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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.