The government of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) has decided to withdraw from the Commonwealth School Chaplaincy Program. The program was started by the Howard government in 2007, and it was stated that the program was to offer “support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships and spirituality”, and was supposed to be based on pastoral care, not religious instruction1,2. There has been constant and significant opposition to the program, as secular pastoral care workers are not allowed to be hired under the program. Some of the opposition is based on this religious discrimination in hiring, and many representations have been made asking that the religious requirement be removed3. This has been to no avail, as the Liberal Party has been largely taken over by religious nutters, and the maintenance of religious privilege is paramount to them.
Alison Courtice, a spokeswoman for Queensland Parents for Secular State Schools, said the Queensland guidelines allowed for religious groups employing chaplains to apply for a temporary waiver of minimum pastoral care qualifications, but “no such waiver applies to the faith requirement … which clearly illustrates that the program is about religion more than what’s best for students”. Although chaplains are not allowed to proselytise, Courtice noted that the same people were allowed to deliver religious instruction outside their chaplaincy hours. She called this “a concerning blurring of the lines, with students potentially failing to distinguish between the roles”3.
The ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry has argued that the chaplaincy program conflicts with the ACT’s Education Act, which requires public schools to be secular. It almost goes without saying that the local branch of the Liberal Party are foaming at the mouth about this decision. This is especially true of Elizabeth Kikkert, who said that banning chaplains appeared at odds with the ACT government’s promise to make schools inclusive and welcoming for students of all faiths and backgrounds4. In the eyes of the religious, being inclusive and welcoming is only possible if it is their particular religion offering inclusivity and welcome. Given the nastiness on display by many of the religious during the campaign around same-sex marriage, one wonders how ‘inclusive’ some of these chaplains would be. Indeed, why would Christian chaplains rather than secular counsellors be any more inclusive or welcoming to people of other religions or of no religion? Kikkert also asked if secular youth workers would be allowed to provide students with “spiritual guidance or advice” if they sought it. Probably not, but they could send them to the local church, synagogue or mosque, where such advice could be provided. One could equally ask if religious chaplains could offer guidance to students regarding sexuality or gender identity. One suspects not.
These Liberal Party objections are just another instance of the religious whining about their declining power and influence in society and their overwhelming desire to try to hang onto it. To try to influence the young before they have developed critical thinking skills has been a tried and true method of attempting to increase the numbers of bums on pews. Fortunately, the ACT government has had the wherewithal to stand up to such underhand tactics.