Progressive Christians oppose Chaplaincy Program

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While the Government can't find money for the ABC and SBS, it continues throwing it at school chaplains. A group of progressive Christians says there  are valid questions about the administration, ethos and very existence of the Government-funded Chaplaincy Program, writes the Reverend Dr Ray Barraclough.

A group of progressive Christians is calling for a fundamental reshaping of the government-funded Chaplaincy Program in state schools. This is no minor issue for up to $700 million has been spent or earmarked for the program.

The group, A Progressive Christian Voice (APCV), says that valid questions have been raised in regard to the very existence, as well as the administration and the ethos, of the Chaplaincy Program. For example, the very existence of the current program has been challenged successfully in two separate cases brought to the High Court of Australia. 

APCV is concerned that proposed legislation will prevent trained non-religious counsellors from being employed under the Chaplaincy program. We understand that this will lead to the termination of employment for some 500 non-religious counsellors currently employed in schools. This is in the face of a recent New South Wales study that showed that professionally trained secular counsellors, employed in schools, produced better outcomes in regard to student welfare.

This is also a sectarian prohibition and it is being proposed despite clear guidelines prohibiting proselytising by chaplains. Such guidelines clearly have in view religious chaplains. Yet anecdotal evidence, at the very least, indicates that a number of chaplains use their access to school students to proselytise for their own churches.

We are aware of concerns raised by parents regarding the fundamentalist-shaped ideas some chaplains are communicating in schools. We therefore ask the government to advise how chaplains are held accountable and to what extent they are scrutinised. 

Administration of the Chaplaincy Program is largely in the hands of fundamentalist-inclined evangelical religious groups. Given the clear issues in regard to public financial support for secular schooling that Professor Marion Maddox addressed in her book Taking God to School, we are concerned that such unrepresentative groups are allowed to be in charge of the program. 

If religious chaplaincy is to be continued, it needs to be administered by well represented ecumenical religious groups.

APCV wishes to advance the following proposals:

Firstly, that any funding to facilitate the social and personal welfare of students in public schools is to be used to support tertiary trained counsellors with no religious test required for applicants.

This would respect the spirit of Section 116 of the Australian Constitution, which reads, in part:

'…no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.'

Professor Maddox noted how the federal government channelled the money, and commented that: 

'This effectively laundered public money because, ironically, it went through a religious organisation.'  

Secondly, that competent non-religious counsellors should be welcomed and not barred from  providing their services in a Chaplaincy Program.

Thirdly, if religious chaplaincy is to be continued, it needs to be administered by widely representative ecumenical religious groups. Ecumenical groups such as the National Council of Churches of Australia would be far more representative of churches in Australia than the very narrowly defined religious groups such as Access Ministries in Victoria or Scripture Union in Queensland.

Fourthly, complaints from parents or other carers of children in regard to breaches of guidelines by program staff need to be adjudicated by an independent body, clearly separate from the employing agencies.

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