In last night’s budget, the Abbott government commited a further $245 million to fund the presence of religious chaplains in state schools for the next five years. This, despite the High Court having already ruled once that such funding is illegal and another decision pending, following plaintiff, Ron Williams’ return to the High Court last week.
It is not for the High Court to decide on the value or otherwise of placing religious practitioners into schools at the expense of professionals with tertiary qualifications in psychology, counselling and youth work. The Williams decision will be made on the basis of whether the funding arrangements are permitted under the limited legislative parameters placed on the Federal government by the Constitution.
The argument about whether chaplaincy is a wise or responsible use of public money must take place in the public square, not the High Court. It is for the Australian public to decide whether that money could be better spent on, say, disability services in schools, text books, better IT equipment, airconditioning, swimming pools, or, God forbid, tertiary trained, welfare workers with no particular religious axe to grind.
It is up to the Australian public to exert pressure on their political representatives – both Federal and state – to end this cynical attempt to purchase the votes of an imagined ‘Christian constituency’. At its worse, it is outright pork-barreling. At its best, it is pork-barreling combined with an ideological agenda to ‘re-Christianise’ a nation which is moving rapidly away from religious faith by infiltrating the educational incubators of our next generation of workers and leaders.
The evangelistic tendencies of the mostly fundamentalist, Protestant, religious evangelists who profit from the National School Chaplaincy Program are inexplicably talked up as representing one of the key benefits of the program, while, at the same time frantically obfuscated to deflect criticism.
Chaplains are unashamedly in schools to inculcate ‘values’. They are religious chaplains for a reason: (there never were many truly ‘secular’ welfare workers’, and the new budget provides only for those of a religious bent).
John Howard said when he announced the program in 2006 that he was unashamedly calling them chaplains:
“Yes I am calling them chaplains because that has a particular connotation in our language, and as you know, I am not ever overwhelmed by political correctness. To call a chaplain a counsellor is to bow to political correctness. Chaplain has a particular connotation. People understand it, they know exactly what I am talking about.”
When atheist Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was grilled about her views on the chaplaincy program, she cowered in front of Australian Christian Lobby chief, Jim Wallace and recited a well-rehearsed:
“… my view about the chaplaincy program is yes, it would continue as a chaplaincy program, with everything that that implies.”
And yet, in the face of criticism from various quarters including teachers, parents, psychologists, members of non-Christian religious groups and secularists that the program breaches the spirit of the separation of church and state and compromises the principle of Australian education as ‘free, compulsory and secular’, its advocates stand, hand on Bible, and swear that the religious component is ‘incidental’ because chaplains are expressly forbidden from proselytising in the program’s guidelines.
Confusion reigned in the High Court, this week, when the Commonwealth solicitor-general and the QC representing Scripture Union Queensland made passionate representations about the value of chaplains as counselors – until it was pointed out by both one of the Justices and by Mr Williams’ barrister that the guidelines expressly forbid chaplains from counseling students.
Mr Williams’ barrister also questioned how the inculcation of ‘values’ – put forward as a benefit of the program – could be achieved when the specific values associated with religious chaplains (surely irrevocably entwined with the concept of following Christ and his teachings) were not permitted to be proselytised.
Ron Williams, Hugh Wilson and I, of course, knew the answer to this question was that chaplains routinely counsel and proselytise in a clear breach of the National School Chaplaincy Program guidelines and Education Queensland policy. If they do not, there is really very little purpose to them being in schools beyond running crazy hair days and presiding over sausage sizzles.
So, I was not surprised, this morning, when a Twitter follower sent me a link to a blog called “The crossroad – thoughts on theology, society, justice and discipleship” by Daniel Baxter, a school chaplain who appears to be working in two state schools in Brisbane.
On 12 February, this year, Daniel wrote a blog in which he confessed:
“Discipleship is a journey where we are consistently changed, renewed and restored. It is ultimately a journey deeper into a relationship with Jesus, and to becoming more effective at seeing and establishing the Kingdom of God in our world. It’s a journey I am very passionate about personally, and it is my mission to disciple others, including kids and their families in the schools I work in, as well as those around me in church life. ” [Emphasis added]
I’ve taken a screenshot because experience has shown me that, once spotlighted, these kinds of frank statements tend to magically disappear into the ether.
Baxter’s words echo those of Evonne Paddison, whose organisation, Access Ministries, receives millions of taxpayers’ dolars to place chaplains and religious instructors in Victorian schools:
“What really matters is seizing the God-given opportunity we have to reach kids in schools. Without Jesus, our students are lost”.
“It’s important that the church recognize its commission is to make disciples. Our young people need Christ”.
“What a commandment, make disciples (of school children). What a responsibility. What a privilege we have been given. Let’s go for it!”
Similarly, ‘Sunshine’ who spoke for the ‘value’ of Hillsong’s ‘Shine’ program – which was (perhaps unwisely) touted by Scripture Union’s QC as one of the beneficial offshoots of chaplaincy – candidly reveals its real purpose of religion-in-schools in this video:
“This program’s important to me because it gives me an opportunity to connect with the girls out there; it gives the Church an opportunity to have a foot in the door … and to give them those principles that my mom gave me that I know they might not get if they’re not in a Christian family. I want to see these young girls come to knowledge of Salvation; to get to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.” – Sunshine Wretham, Shine promotional video
For those chaplains who might be a bit squeamish about openly flouting the rules the solution is easy – and we know it happens routinely; find vulnerable, unchurched kids and encourage them to attend a Scripture Union Queensland camp on the holidays, where the evangelising gloves can come off. It helps if you can encourage their friends to exert a little gentle peer pressure – “Oh come on, we’re all going! It’ll be fun!”
It is well meaning. I have no doubt of the sincerity of these ‘fishers of children’. But at its heart it is predatory behaviour and completely ignores the rights of parents – of all faiths and of none – to maintain control over this aspect of their childrens’ education and philosophical development.
There is no doubt in my mind at all that the majority of chaplains see their role as making disciples of impressionable children. That their overriding mission in our country’s supposedly secular schools is conversion.
I find it offensive, in the extreme, that in a multi-faith, secular nation, our government is spending an obscene amount of money on this fundamentalist, ideological offensive at the expense of programs that would provide real, tangible benefits to our students. Surely they deserve better.