Scripture Union is currently in déjà vu – in the High Court for its second challenge by Toowoomba plaintiff Ron Williams.

The original High Court challenge failed to address state and church separation on technical grounds. This time, Williams is challenging the legislation used to fund chaplaincy. A decision is expected in the coming months.

In the 2014 budget, the Abbott government controversially allocated $245.3 million towards chaplaincy in schools. Some argue it’s oddly out of sync with the otherwise severe budget; others claim this indicates the government’s recognition of the value of such a program. Schools will also lose the option of appointing secular social workers under the program.

While many have learnt to be wary of religious institutions, funding for SU and chaplaincy is justified on its own merits. The debate here should focus less on a general discussion of church institutions and more on the actual results of chaplaincy in our country.

If you believe in a firm separation of church and state, then chaplaincy isn’t a problem.

Here’s why…

Chaplains are not allowed to proselytise

The media often paints chaplains as a bunch of bible-bashers. Chaplains are legally forbidden to even mention their own belief, unless directly asked. Chaplains must respect children of all religions, can’t impose their own beliefs, evangelise or proselytise. Parental consent is also a must if students are in a class or activity run by a chaplain.

Chaplains are accountable

I’ve frequently heard the cry: “Chaplains can do whatever they want”. Chaplains are accountable to the Department of Education, teachers, principals and to parents who are liable to hear “everything that happened at school”. Guidelines for chaplains are clear. In the case of misconduct, the Department will conduct an investigation, with the result of immediate withdrawal of funding and redundancy for the chaplains involved, should the investigation find anything askew. This is hardly a dormant policy quoted to quiet fears. Former Minister for School Education Peter Garrett stated in 2011, “My expectation is that each and every chaplain that’s involved in this program will vigorously and religiously – if I can use that expression – adhere to those guidelines.”

Chaplains are not counsellors

Chaplains can offer support but clearly are not allowed to counsel children. They will give moral support, be a listening ear to a child and may give generalised advice. Many jobs rely on systems of referrals such as nurses and government workers. If these are accepted, the chaplain’s system of referrals to counsellors can’t be attacked solely on this basis. The generalised claim that chaplains always overstep the line is flawed.

A strict separation of church and state is a utopian fantasy

Teachers are granted more liberties with children than chaplains. Every teacher has a distinct worldview. Some would go as far as claiming that each person has a religion (atheism was declared a religion by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeal in 2005 – however this is the subject of another debate). I distinctly remember teachers imparting their beliefs to the class – from Anglicans to atheists and everything in between. Separation of church and state requires the realisation that the church and the state are both institutions made of people. A strict separation will never be achievable.

But the taxpayers…!

It is commonly argued, especially in light of the recent budget, that chaplaincy shouldn’t come from the taxpayer’s pockets. However, often the children in the highest-risk categories we all wish to protect come from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This means that they are often unable to access support services they critically need. It is clear that schools are the easiest method the government has to access these children at risk. One 2008 report by the Youth Action and Policy Association found that, of surveyed young people living in or near poverty, 12 percent had been unable to access mental health services and 1 in 10 were experiencing psychological deprivation, including: a sense of belonging, confidence and support. These are exactly the roles chaplains perform – in referrals to counsellors and by teaching holistic personal development.

Everyone wants help for our kids, just not from Christians

Australians unanimously believe that something must be done about our youth:

  • Between 1996-97 and 2005-6 self-harm hospitalisation rates among young people increased by 43 percent (Eldridge, D. (2008) Injury Among Young Australians. AIWH bulletin series no.60 Cat. No. AUS 102. Canberra: AIWH)
  • Australian secondary students are experiencing more binge drinking: In 2008 approximately 53 percent of male Year 12 students and 60 percent of Year 12 girls reported three or more binge drinking episodes in the last two weeks (4th National Survey of Australian Secondary Students, HIV/AIDS and Sexual Health, 2008)
  • Suicide accounts for 21.9 percent and 32.6 percent of deaths of males and females respectively in Australia between the ages of 15-19. (Australian Bureau of Statistics, Causes of Death, Australia, 2012)

Opponents of chaplaincy argue that chaplaincy funding should be redirected to fund issues such as suicide prevention. Ironically, these are the very problems chaplaincy addresses. Above all, issues such as youth suicide and binge drinking shouldn’t be politicised. We need to support programs that are actually working to target this area. Chaplaincy provides programs where kids can be taught holistically about mental health, personal development and identity.

If the High Court challenge is successful, many other programs are at risk

Importantly, if this bill is challenged it could threaten over 450 other federal programs funded under the legislation, including 82 educational programs. This could threaten autism assistance, well-being services for students and Indigenous educational programs.


Maybe we need to consider what chaplaincy actually does before pointing to proselytization. Religious beliefs co-exist in all areas of society and chaplaincy isn’t undermining this.

Repeating these empty criticisms gives everyone a little too much déjà vu.

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