We were advised several days in advance that a decision on Ron Williams’ High Court Challenge against federal funding for the National School Chaplaincy Program would be handed down on Wednesday, 20 June 2012.
Anticipating that a decision must surely be imminent, I’d already started drafting an article and conducted an interview with Ron – I knew when the decision finally came down he’d be swamped by media!
The decision was scheduled for 10.15am. At the appointed hour, I was busily working on the article with ABC News 24 playing in the background. And, then, through the background hum came the decision: Williams had won!
My hand flew to my mouth, my whole body went tingly, then numb and I started to scream, “We won! We won! We won!”
When Maria Proctor, (president of the Humanist Society of Queensland, which donated a significant amount towards Ron’s legal costs) rang we repeated the “We won! We won!” chant in duet.
When the excitement died down, I felt like someone who’d simultaneously won the lottery and been run over by a truck. Speaking to Ron, yesterday, I discovered he felt much the same!
Later in the day, I had the opportunity to speak to briefly to Ron and enjoyed a longer conversation with Ron’s main supporter and ‘trusty side-kick’, Hugh Wilson, later that night.
In a 6:1 decision, the High Court upheld Ron’s claim that funding the National School Chaplaincy Program exceeded the executive powers of the Commonwealth. In short, it was unconstitiutional.
The judges were unanimous, however, that the program did not breach the ‘religious test’ clause of Section 116 of the Constitution.
While some glass-half-empty folks have chosen to see the latter decision as a ‘failure’ it was an ambit claim that Williams never expected to win.
“It was always about the funding,” he told me.
“Of course, we would have loved to have mounted another DoGS (Defence of Government Schools) case and reinstated Section 116 as a separation clause, but every bit of legal advice told us that just wasn’t possible.”
What Ron’s legal team did was to find another avenue to attack the program and he has emerged victorious. I think that’s time for some glass-more-than-half-full celebration.
It was always highly unlikely that the High Court Challenge was going to stop chaplaincy in its tracks. Everyone who followed the case closely understood that. Ron has always been clear that this was the ‘opening salvo’ in a much longer battle. But what a salvo!
The most likely scenario now is that the government will fund chaplaincy through the states, via a tied grant or special purpose payment (SPP). But, as I’ve explained in an article for ABC’s Religion and Ethics today, this may be something of a ‘poisoned chalice’ for the states.
When I spoke to Ron yesterday he assured me that if chaplaincy is to be administered by the states, that’s where the battle will move to. This is, by no means, the end of the fight for the education system our founding fathers envisaged: free, secular and compulsory.
I hope you’ll enjoy my Religion and Ethics article. I hope that Ron’s thousands of supporters will continue their interest in secular public education through following this blog, subscribing to the Stop the National School Chaplaincy Program Facebook page, and, if you happen to be independently wealthy, through monetary support to help the fighting fund.
There are not many people who get the opportunity to be a small part of making constitutional history. I’m so glad when the opportunity presented itself to work with Ron’s team – specifically Hugh Wilson (SPEL), Maria Proctor (Qld Humanists), Max and Meg Wallace (Australian United for the Separation of Church and State), Dan Stevens, Nina Pace and Nelson Lau – I ‘seized the day’.
Those interested in the chaplaincy issue should be sure to watch the videos on Ron and Hugh’s Secular Public Education Lobby (SPEL) website.
Parents experiencing problems with chaplaincy or any other kind of religious interference in public schools can contact Hugh and Ron at firstname.lastname@example.org . They really do want to hear from you.