EDITORIAL: Chaplains in public schools

High court rules against federal funding for school chaplaincy: poll
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IN more rational days, a unanimous High Court ruling against federal funding of Christian chaplain services in schools might be greeted with veiled relief by politicians of all varieties.

It could be seen as a perfect excuse to save hundreds of millions of dollars and return to the basic principle that Australia’s public school system should be secular in character.

But in these politically polarised times, when the votes and pulpit support of religious fundamentalists are prized by the main parties, it won’t be surprising if the government simply finds another way of funding what some believe is schoolyard evangelism.

In that case the Coalition could hold itself forward as the champion of Christianity – and by extension, in the eyes of many Christians, of wholesome morals and upright behaviour – daring Labor to oppose it. Offering such opposition would invite anger and indignation from Christians, with no potential electoral benefit to be had for the trouble.

Already some people will misunderstand the High Court decision. They will think the court made a value judgment on school chaplaincy programs when that is not the case at all.

The court merely ruled on some federal legislation, finding that those hastily drafted laws don’t have the effect their designers intended. The laws fail to ground their function in the acknowledged powers the Australian constitution confers to the government, hence they are invalid.

Significantly, the same emergency laws – enacted in a rush by the Gillard government in 2012 – have been relied upon to support a range of other federal programs. The High Court ruling means all of those programs must now be re-examined to see whether they also lack effective legislative support.

The answer will probably vary from case to case, but it appears probable that some of the programs in question will be placed in the same position as the school chaplaincy scheme.

As for whether chaplains belong in government schools, opinions differ.

Queensland father Ron Williams, who fought the case against the government all the way to the High Court, represents the secular side of the argument. This position insists that government schools were generally established with an explicit charter to be non-religious and that the insertion of Christian chaplains undermines that intent.

It is argued that ethical and moral behaviour is not exclusive to any religion and that some extremely literal interpretations of some parts of the Christian Bible are so inimical to modern scientific understandings of the world that they have no place in any non-religious school.

Opponents of that view, however, will never be converted.

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