On School Chaplains and Religious Freedom

A High Court ruling has declared that government funding of the school chaplaincy program is invalid according to the Australian constitution. This ruling raises many issues and many questions, and is a very important decision indeed.

One news report covers the story this way: “The High Court has ruled that the national school chaplaincy program is constitutionally invalid because it exceeds the Commonwealth’s funding powers. In a landmark decision that could cast doubt on other areas of Commonwealth funding, the court this morning upheld a challenge to the scheme by Queensland father Ron Williams.

“The Howard government introduced the scheme in 2007, offering schools up to $20,000 a year to introduce or extend chaplaincy services. One of Australia’s leading constitutional lawyers George Williams said the implications of the case were massive and could potentially affect any program directly funded by the federal government.”

The ruling came about as a result of a challenge a Toowoomba father made about the chaplaincy program. The ramifications of this decision may well be far reaching, and it is too early to tell just what all the implications of this will be.

The report continues: “Opposition Leader Tony Abbott told reporters in Queanbeyan that he wanted the chaplaincy program to continue but noted that he hadn’t yet seen the court’s decision. ‘We invented the program, we support the program, we want it to continue,’ he said. ‘Let’s have a look at the decision and let’s see what the government has in mind. I think it would be a real pity if this program wasn’t able to continue.’

“Scripture Union Queensland, Australia’s largest employer of chaplains, which was the defendant to the High Court action, said today’s decision was about a particular historical funding model. ‘Even though that model might be invalid, it does not keep chaplains from supporting school communities,’ chief executive officer Peter James said. ‘Instead, it means that a new funding model is needed.’

“The High Court decision that government funding of chaplaincy in Queensland schools is invalid is only ‘a technicality’ and will not mean the end of the program, Australian Christian Lobby head Jim Wallace said today. ‘The government is committed to the program and I expect it will find an appropriate way of directing the funds,’ Brigadier Wallace said. ‘There’s no challenge to the religious aspect. I’d anticipate it will move quickly – we are talking about a bureaucratic solution’.”

SU Queensland, which was the focus of this case, put out a press release saying in part: “The High Court of Australia today ruled the Federal Government’s direct funding model is not valid. The Court left open the option for the Government to continue funding either under new legislation or a grant of funds to the states and territories. SU QLD Incoming CEO Peter James said the decision meant that the great work chaplains do across the nation will continue as long as the Government acts swiftly to ensure the funding continues.

“He said, although the historical funding model does not work, the court unanimously held there is no problem of ‘church – state’ separation from chaplaincy and that other funding models are possible. ‘Chaplains provide an important child and youth welfare role. This is recognised by the school principals and school communities who have chosen to have a “chappy”,’ he said.

“‘This decision means that for the vital work of chaplains to continue, we need a new funding model. We will be working with the Federal Government to ensure that happens.’ Mr James said that over 2000 school communities across Australia have chaplains and many will lose their chaplains if a new federal funding model is not put in place.”

Because it is early days yet, and because I am certainly not a legal eagle, my thoughts on this must be both tentative and limited. But a few general remarks can be made. While a program like this has done a tremendous amount of good, and helped countless children, the new strident atheism which is growing in voice and militancy is a factor to be reckoned with.

This particular father who initiated the case is obviously not a great fan of the faith, and it was his objections that have led to this outcome. Such opposition to faith-based charitable works like this is rather recent. In the not-too-distant past most Australians – even non-Christian Australians – would not have taken offence at such a program.

But the new atheism popularised by people like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens has resulted in a new activism by the secularists and misotheists. And given that the West is no longer just post-Christian but increasingly anti-Christian, we can expect to see more of these sorts of cases and decisions.

Moreover, given these realities, this case opens up the much bigger issue of just how dependent Christian groups of any kind – be they churches, Bible schools, charities, parachurch groups, and so on – should be on any form of government funding.

The simple truth is, as the saying goes, “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. That is, whenever groups receive state monies, the state can dictate how that money is used, and they can radically curtail or restrict what these religious bodies do and say. They pull the strings, and the groups must act accordingly.

This is a major theological, political and historical issue which cannot be fully entered into here. But one historical point might be noted. Many decades ago groups like the National Civic Council lobbied governments to extend education funding to Catholic schools.

This was seen as a real justice issue. Simply put, religious folks who sent their kids to non-government schools were facing double jeopardy. They had to pay their taxes to support the public school system even though they did not directly benefit from it. Then they had to pay for the Catholic education as well – so they were getting slugged twice.

So in the 1960s changes were made and government funding became available for Catholic schools. That seemed to work fine at first, but as I mentioned, as governments get increasingly secular and hostile to religion, and as various activist groups keep demanding and getting special rights, this then puts real pressure on any religious body getting government funding.

For example, the whole raft of equal opportunity laws and anti-discrimination legislation includes all sorts of pro-homosexual agendas, which many religious schools would not be happy with. Often there are now exemptions for these groups, but they are tenuous at best, and could be withdrawn at any time.

Thus given this adversarial climate, increasingly religious bodies getting public funds will be asked – or demanded – to do things which violate their own religious principles and scruples. So what is to be done? That is a question I will not seek to finally answer here, but it is a vitally important question which must be raised.

It seems to me as Christian persecution intensifies, and anti-Christian bigotry becomes solidified, including at government levels, then all real churches and religious groups need to ask themselves some hard questions. How long can they feed at the government trough and not be compromised? At what point must they reject such funding?

Maybe they need to fully trust God for their finances, and not put all their faith – or so much of it – in the state. Those religious bodies which are getting government funds: what will they do? Will they prefer to compromise their convictions and water down their beliefs and practises, simply to keep getting the money?

Or will they take a stand on principle, and renounce such funding in the interests of maintaining pure policy, teaching and practice? Many religious bodies have not yet reached this place of decision – but they may soon well. Thus it is incumbent on all religious groups to think through these matters hard and long, before it becomes too late.


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26 Replies to “On School Chaplains and Religious Freedom”

  1. Quite right Bill. I believe that the Church needs to take a long, hard look at the compromises it may need to make in order to continue to receive Government funding. We may have to reduce some services – at least on a temporary basis – but perhaps that would give us a greater reliance on Almighty God and make us look at HIS will rather than our own.
    Joan Davidson

  2. Thanks Joan

    And of course for most of its history the church has managed to be involved in all sorts of work, activities, charitable programs, and so on, without a scrap of government money. It is only recently that they have become so reliant on state aid. But as I said, there are always strings attached to such funding arrangements.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. “Will they prefer to compromise their convictions and water down their beliefs and practises, simply to keep getting the money?”

    I predict that the most common answer will be a continued “salami-attack” by governments – increasing the difficulties of retaining funding, followed by a progressive compromise of the schools values/belief system.

    John Angelico

  4. As one of the outspoken atheist you usually vilify, I’m surprised to find myself agreeing with you here, Bill. If religious institutions take public money – whether they be school chaplains, religious private schools, charities or whatever – they make themselves subject to public policy. And if they don’t want to be so subject to public policy they should refrain from taking public money.

    And you’re right about another thing, court actions like this (and similar campaigns in the political arena) are going to become more and more common as the campaign against religious privilege grows. I for one will be doing what I can to support these actions.

    There is one other area where we might agree: I think the most important target for the campaing against religious privilege isn’t Chrstianity (though I do think you Christies are a legitimate target), the first priority is Islam. Perhaps atheist and Christians could get together to oppose the sort of silly religious vilification laws (and even siller mores of political correctness) that are increasingly being used to shield muslims from criticism?

    Benjamin David O’Donnell

  5. Thanks Benjamin

    As one of the outspoken Christians you usually vilify, I’m surprised to find myself in a few areas agreeing with you here. Given the absolutely overwhelming contributions Christianity has made to this world (up until recently to speak of Western civilisation was to speak of Christian civilisation) there is every reason in the world for societies and even governments to acknowledge and even support in various ways all the good being done by Christians.

    It certainly was not you atheists who set up hospitals, schools, soup kitchens, leprosy missions, campaigns for women and children, campaigns to abolish slavery, health and medical help, AIDS hospices, and so on – but Christians, the very people you tend to so dislike. Thus societies have every reason to see Christian faith continue to flourish. Even the more honest hardcore atheists such as Theodore Dalrymple and Matthew Parris have admitted as much.

    The former said, “To regret religion is to regret Western civilization.”

    And the latter said, “As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God”

    But as the West gets more and more hostile to faith – no thanks to you folks – and seeks to actively target, harass, and persecute Christians, then yes it is then a good time to learn to live on our own faith and resources – which we should have been doing all along.

    But I am certainly with you in the need to get rid of the horrific religious vilification laws. And there is no question for any intelligent person that the real threat to freedom, democracy, reason and pluralism is not Christianity, but Islamism.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  6. The government funded chaplaincy program already requires chaplains to make unacceptable compromises. Chaplains are required to sign an employment contract that prevents them from proselytising!

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  7. Perhaps in addition to agreeing with Christians that Islam is a threat to freedom, atheists may also like to agree with us that the state should stop sponsoring the religion of evolutionary (secular-) humanism? Since the atheists consider chaplains unwelcome in public schools, should they not also object to the apostles of evolution preaching in public school science classes? Or is it OK if the religion being promoted in public schools is the one preferred by the atheists?

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria

  8. Ewan, I entirely agree with you. If chaplains are not allowed to do or say anything which might be construed as proselytising, how can they be distinguished from wishy-washy do-gooders?
    But this is a complicated issue. Something inside tells me that we should fight for every apparent right we have, or risk looking like defeatists.
    Peter Murnane

  9. Very well said Bill.

    I wonder if all the Christians in Australia took seriously tithing and offerings. If we did this then perhaps we would not need to accept government money.

    God bless you and your family Bill as you present the truth.

    Paul Copeland.

  10. I think you are spot on here Bill, it is simply too natural and easy to compromise for somone when they are paying your way.

    Nick Davies

  11. I have a friend who was a high school chaplain until last year. Poor fellow had a good heart. Slowly but surely like a boa constrictor, they stopped him from saying anything. In the end all he could do was nod at the students. Even then he was asked to keep that to a minimum. He’s a building contractor now, far less dangerous.
    Daniel Kempton

  12. Hi Bill,
    I agree that we Christians should pay our own way and do without government funding. However, seeing that a component of our tax is the cost of education we should be allowed to deduct from our tax bill the cost of educating our kids privately.
    Joost Gemeren

  13. In the end, this case was about whether it was constitutional for the Commonwealth to hand out the money as they did. I know the dad at the centre of the case talked up getting religion out of the classroom but in the end, this case has little to do with state and church relations, and everything to do with the limits of state power.

    I like chaplains but not so much that I want the Feds extending their constitutional overreach more than they already have.

    Lee Herridge, WA

  14. There’s some woolly thinking behind this issue. People complain about separation of church and state, but strictly speaking, chaplains don’t represent the church. They might be considered para-church. Plus, as someone else noted, they are generally not allowed to proselytise.
    Sadly, if chaplains were removed, it would disadvantage students who would want to discuss matters from a faith perspective.

    John Bennett

  15. I don’t think the govt funding for chaplaincy actually helps anyway. As Ewan pointed out, there are severe restrictions on what a chaplain can do and they end up just being a school counsellor who cannot offer any real substantial counselling from a Christian point of view.

    I object to all this government dependency!

    Govt funding comes with too many strings attached. It is not worth it. Chaplains are selling their souls.

    If churches and schools want chaplains then they need to fund it themselves so their is no (or at least less) govt interference…

    Andrew Kulikovsky

  16. Thanks guys. As I mentioned in a comment above, it seems on the general issue of education funding, a helpful way to deal with these problems is the use of educational vouchers, which give parents the power to choose. Let them decide how and where they go for their kids’ education.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  17. I largely agree with Andrew Kulikovsky. I don’t think any form of Christianity benefits from being on the teat of the state. But it needs to be emphasised that gov’t needs to get out of the education business all together and stop funding secular humanism or any other form of religion.

    A compromise might, as Bill said, be a voucher system.

    Damien Spillane

  18. “he who pays the piper calls the tune” should also apply to the government receiving taxpayer’s money. As taxpayers in a democracy, our voice should be louder in calling the government to account to the way they spend it.

    My demand to the government is to cut off my money going to support any left field extremest group, any support of abortion and euthanasia, any support of gay and lesbian rights, and any support of state welfare that encourages laziness and magnifies criminal’s rights.

    David Clay, Darwin

  19. I am a school chaplain. The Federal Government does put restrictions on us. Also each local school puts its own policy into place as well.
    I have just finished the training requirement of Minister Garret. I wish you all could have been part of it to hear the wonderful testimonies of chaplains and what is happening in schools.
    Yes, there are philosophical and Biblical considerations to take up. Let’s keep doing that.
    Greg Brien

  20. Please note I am not a martyr, I’m simply born again by the grace of God like many of you readers are.

    The more I read the new testament scriptures the more I see those who gave their whole life to the Lord.
    The more I read Pauls letters I see a man who went through so much suffering, beatings, ridicule and periods of hunger all in order to proclaim the glorious and powerful message of the gospel. A little different to what your good ol prosperity preachers teach !. Then in Hebrews chapter 11 we see men who the world did not even deserve to have because of their devotion to Christ. People who are willing to give their life and lose their reputation for the sake of proclaiming Jesus Christ the only name under heaven by which men can be saved.
    Hang on a minute it just doesn’t add up as we have biblical characters mentioned above who didn’t squabble for scraps from the table of governments and they gave their whole lives including periods of suffering and lack. Yet here we are demanding the government for funding.
    Persecuted Church in Iran, Underground church in China but Christians in Australia demanding government funding so they are then forced to water down the gospel and perhaps if they get a chance whisper the gospel in someone’s ear so they don’t get persecuted.
    God help us all, Im glad Acts chapter 3 and 4 have not been torn out of my bible.

    Carmelo Bonanno

  21. When the churches stopped solely supporting chaplains and allowed the Government to fund them, the hands of chaplains were tied. But chaplains in more schools became possible. The title “school chaplain” is really a misnomer because a chaplain is called to exercise a Christian ministry. Chaplains still do valuable work in our schools but they’re really social workers which probably don’t cost the Government as much!

    Graham Lawn

  22. Though I agree with much of the sentiments expressed in these comments, I would like to rermind folks that, if I’m not mistaken, the chaplancy project was of the government initiative and program and not of the churches. If that is right the government can set the conditions.

    Joost Gemeren

  23. There are plenty of valid points in the above discussion. Greg Brien makes an important one that shouldn’t be missed. Let’s talk with the people who do the job. They’ve invested time, money, prayer and probably sleepless nights. They help young people and families survive and thrive realistically. And they see wonderful things happen. We’re all aware of how slippery and ephemeral the world’s becoming. Like trying to swim through fog? Debate and discussion are good and compromise is very risky but let’s support these chaplains. They’re making big sacrifices. Their website’s easy enough to find.
    Terry Darmody

  24. Thanks guys

    Just in case things are not clear, I for one am fully in favour of school chaplains. But the issue is, in light of this ruling, which way forward? And the ongoing question of secular government funding of any Christian activity – and its effects for good or ill – is still something we must be carefully and prayerfully thinking through.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  25. A good article Bill.
    I believe and have done for many years now, that funding for independent schools need to move to a voucher funding model. That is, the state funds the parent who exercises their parental rights to choose the school for their children.
    Frank Lindsey

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