IN A landmark ruling, welcomed by the Atheist Foundation of Australia, the High Court yesterday declared that the country’s national school chaplaincy programme, which costs millions of tax dollars annually, was constitutionally invalid because it exceeds the Commonwealth’s funding powers.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Attorney General Nicola Roxon said the government would continue funding the programme, despite the ruling.
The High Court case was the result of a challenge to the chaplaincy programme by Ron Williams, a father of six who has four children attending Queensland public school. The Toowoomba dad claimed that it violated religious freedom protections in the constitution, and exceeded Commonwealth funding powers.
But the High Court ruled that the case did not impact on the freedom of religion, and unanimously dismissed Williams’s charge that the programme itself was in breach of constitution.
Instead it found that school chaplains were not Commonwealth employees, but rather were engaged by an external organisation, Scripture Union Queensland. The funding agreement between SUQ and the Commonwealth was therefore invalid because it was beyond the executive power of the Commonwealth.
One of Australia’s leading constitutional lawyers George Williams explained that the High Court had found that the Commonwealth lacked the power to fund chaplains via executive action without accompanying legislation.
The Commonwealth might go back and try and support the chaplaincy programme with legislation but it’s far from clear the High Court would uphold the chaplaincy program even with legislation.
About 2,700 schools have received funding under the programme to date. The Gillard government has promised to extend the scheme to up to 1,000 further schools. According to this report, in 2010 the federal government pledged $222 million to extend the programme for four years. More than 430 schools in NSW get up to $20,000 each a year for their chaplain services, totalling almost $12 million, and more than 2500 school across Australia now have chaplains at a cost of more than $151 million.
Roxon said the government was committed to the programme and there were different ways that it would be able to ensure funding for it.
The next round of payments for the chaplaincy programme is due later this year.
Despite this, Williams said he was elated by the ruling. He thanked his legal team and the hundreds of supporters who had made donations to support the case, which he launched to secure a secular education for his children.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said he wanted the chaplaincy program to carry on:
We invented the program, we support the program, we want it to continue.
And Queensland Premier Campbell Newman said he would work with the federal government to deal with any administrative issues and ensure the chaplaincy program could continue.
I want the chamber today to know that this government is 100 per cent behind the chaplaincy programme because it’s good for kids at school and it’s good for families.
Scripture Union Queensland said the decision was about a particular historical funding model. Chief Executive Officer Peter James said:
Even though that model might be invalid, it does not keep chaplains from supporting school communities. Instead, it means that a new funding model is needed.
The head of the Australian Christian Lobby, Brigadier Jim Wallace said:
The government is committed to the programme and I expect it will find an appropriate way of directing the funds. There’s no challenge to the religious aspect. I’d anticipate it will move quickly – we are talking about a bureaucratic solution.
But Greens Leader Christine Milne said funding should go instead towards employing counsellors and student support staff.
Schools across Australia need the resources to employ properly qualified counsellors, student support officers and other non-teaching staff to help students through difficult times.
Posted: 2012-06-20 09:31:08
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