Australia’s highest court ruled that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to fund chaplains in schools. This was the second victory for atheist campaigner Ron Williams who has been trying to keep religion out of the educational system in Australia.
Williams started his legal battle against a multimillion-dollar program in 2010 when his 6-year-old son returned home from Darling Heights State School in Queensland, humming gospel tunes. In 2012, Williams won his case after the High Court said that the federal government had in fact exceeded its constitutional powers by funding a program that sponsored chaplains in approximately 2,700 schools in Australia. However, the government kept funding the program by amending legislative procedures to address the court’s prior ruling. On June 19 though, five High Court judges unanimously agreed that the federal funding of Scripture Union Queensland was still unconstitutional despite the changed laws.
Judgments made by both courts revolved around technical aspects of how the federal government is required to spend public money, under the constitution, instead of focusing on Williams’ philosophical contention that state-funded promotion of religion is unconstitutional in secular schools.
“It always seemed totally inappropriate that a program could be put into public schools on no other basis than the largely unqualified people that were going in — with the only proviso being that they be religious,” said Williams after Thursday's ruling.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the government was assessing the court’s ruling because it wants to find a means to keep the 60 million dollar a year program running.
“We very much support it and we want it to continue,” said Abbott, who is a Conservative educated in a Roman Catholic school and spent three years training to become a priest during the 1970s.
On the other hand, the left-wing minor Greens Party as well as the National Teachers Union said that the funds would be better utilized if qualified psychologists, counselors and welfare workers were hired by schools instead of chaplains.
Anne Twomey, constitutional lawyer at Sydney University, said the government could continue sponsoring the program via tied grants through states without facing any legal challenges whatsoever. Currently, the chaplain providers are paid directly.
“They could have always done this stuff through the states under grants; they chose to do these things by direct methods and one of the reasons they did that in the past was to get directly the political kudos that come from it… The chaplaincy program was all about getting direct political support from religious lobby groups,” she said.
The National School Chaplaincy Association that represents the chaplains in concern, concurred with Twomey’s opinion saying the money should in fact be directed through states as they run the schools after all.