The High Court of Australia and the National School Chaplaincy Program

DiversityThe High Court of Australia handed down its decision today in Williams v Commonwealth of Australia [2014] HCA 23 stating the Constitutional power used by the Commonwealth Government to enact the legislation supporting the funding of the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) does not allow for the funding of such a program. The High Court also prepared a brief judgment summary for the public.

Today’s judgment is in addition to the previous rebuke by the High Court in Williams v Commonwealth of Australia [2012] HCA 23 to the use of executive power to fund the NSCP. Admittedly, in this earlier decision, the High Court also held that the NSCP does not breach section 116 of the Constitution, prohibiting the Commonwealth from making ‘any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion’ or requiring a ‘religious test … as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.’

Ron Williams, the concerned Queensland father behind these High Court challenges had done a great service to the community by bringing attention to the issue and challenging the NSCP repeatedly.

It will be interesting to see the reaction of the Commonwealth Government to this decision, especially in light of the recently announced further funding arrangements for the NSCP.

The High Court was invited to evaluate the funding of the NSCP on a purely Constitutional ground. However, the practical general ramifications of the issue are bigger than just the narrow Constitutional interpretation. As a society we must also address whether religious instructions belong in public schools and, if so, to what extent.

I applaud and welcome the High Court for the outcome, because for a liberal democracy to function properly, and to protect the inherent human rights of all of its citizens, it must be fiercely secular in all spheres, including its education system.

Religious beliefs and instructions are arguably a private matter, and have no connection whatsoever to a modern education system, which should only ever be based upon proven scientific and social theories.

If parents wish their child to be religiously instructed and supported, they are welcome to make private arrangements to that effect. But, religious instructions, particularly one with any bias, as the NSCP does appear to manifest in practice, simply do not belong in our public school system in the 21st century.

I accept the historical reverence some hold towards religion and religious beliefs, however beliefs, no matter how ancient, strong or revered, are not an acceptable foundation for an education system in the 21st century.

I also consider the NSCP contradictory to efforts by schools to stamp out bullying, considering that a significant proportion of bullying in schools is aimed at LGBTI youth. Chaplains employed under the NSCP have been shown to spread bias, misinformation and myths about homosexuality, providing fertile ground and legitimisation for ongoing abuse and bullying. Experts in this area have made it clear the Safe Schools program and the NSCP just don’t appear to mix in the real world.

I accept there is room for dealing with, and discussing, religion in the educational context, especially when it comes to history and social studies, provided the information is both factual and critical, covers the widest possible range of religious beliefs, and makes it clear such beliefs and concepts do not have the status of scientific facts and theories.

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