Back when John Howard was PM, a federal program was put in place to supply religious chaplains to schools, paid for by the government. This funding has now been continued for the next two years, despite a national campaign to bring it to an end. It’s interesting that, in a country where 70% of the adult population says that religion is unimportant in their lives, the government is prepared to provide religious advisors to 100% of the nation’s school children. I have to ask, why?
According to the government website, the purpose of providing chaplains to all schools who apply for them are as follows:
The National School Chaplaincy Program is a voluntary program that assists school communities to support the wellbeing of their students, including strengthening values, providing greater pastoral care and enhancing engagement with the broader community.
And who can be a chaplain? This is a direct quote from the Government website:
For the purposes of this Program, a school chaplain is a person who is recognised:
- by the local school, its community and the appropriate governing authority as having the skills and experience to deliver school chaplaincy services to the school and its community; and
- through formal ordination, commissioning, recognised qualifications or endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution or a State/Territory government approved chaplaincy service.
Yes, you read that right – there is no requirement for these chaplains to be qualified in counselling of any kind – only that they be qualified in religion! What isn’t clear is why the government has chosen religious chaplains to provide this service rather than people who are actually qualified to do it. Even more puzzling is the fact that the school can only choose a secular or non-religious provider if a religious one can’t be obtained by the school! The services provided by these chaplains are not mandatory – children don’t have to use them. But if a chaplain is the only service being offered, then that doesn’t give them much of a choice.
Religious schools also benefit from this program. Even if they already have paid chaplains, they can apply for this program and have the chaplain funded by tax-payer money. Somehow, the separation of church and state in Australia has come adrift.
This might just sound like I’m sour because it’s religious and I’m not. But actually, it’s people who know a lot more about it that are really up in arms. The combined cost of $437 million could have gone to providing qualified drug and youth counsellors, and youth mental health experts to schools that desperately need them. Instead, chaplains – who are apparently forbidden from preaching their religion are there to do… what? Nobody seems to be very sure about it, including the chaplains themselves. Which in itself, is a very dangerous mix.
And let’s look at those chaplains: the Queensland provider, the biblical literalist Scripture Union, aims ”to encourage people of all ages to meet God daily through the Bible and prayer”. This provider doesn’t require its chaplains to be trained in anything, only that they have sufficient faith. Basically, this means that the government is paying for people to come to the school under the guise of providing comfort and advice, so they can convert children to their religion, regardless of what the parents believe or whether such treatment is good for the child or not.
And forgive me, but I have to ask this question – aren’t we still struggling to control and come to terms with the crimes committed by priests given personal and private access to children? I’m not saying they’re all bad – but just last week, another story came to light about a school chaplain with more than one hundred victims to his name. While it’s clear there are many excellent religious chaplains out there doing good work, I have to also point out that a very nasty precedent has been made and yet to see any serious conclusion.
But most of all, the real issue is about what the chaplains are doing and what they are unqualified to deal with. A High Court challenge has been mounted by the Australian Psychological Society in the wake of reports of serious issues surrounding the advice and ‘support’ given to a number of troubled children. Evidence-based mental health support groups have been campaigning for the last six months for substantial increases in federal funding to provide desperately needed resources – and yet, nothing has been promised despite a federal election. Instead, millions of dollars have been provided to keep a religious few happy and to provide unwanted religious guidance in schools. Again, I ask why?
A 2006 study by Monash University, the Australian Catholic University and the Christian Research Association found that 52 per cent of Australians have no belief in a God. Secular marriages in Australia have overtaken religious marriages. In 2008, 65 per cent of marriages were celebrated by civil celebrants compared with 41.3% in 1988. A survey of 1718 Australians, conducted by the Christian Research Association at the end of 2009, found that only 16 per cent attended a religious service at least once a month. Australia is widely recognised as one of the least religious countries in the world. All of these are facts, supported by evidence.
Since when has it been the role of the Australian government to turn the country to religion?