by Greg Spearritt
It’s official – the Chaplaincy program in schools begun by the Howard government and sustained by Labor is not in line with the Constitution. A brave and costly move by Toowoomba father Ron Williams to challenge the program has paid off. (Contributions to Ron’s costs may be made here.)
In the light of views aired in 2008 by the then head of Access Ministries, a major body sponsoring chaplains in schools, there has been concern about the real role of these chaplains. The 2008 speech was essentially a call to ‘make disciples’ of students, and the chaplains were acknowledged as a key part of that strategy.
In Queensland, Scripture Union is the major body employing school chaplains; its explicit aims (as taken from its website) are:
(1) to make God’s Good News known to children, young people and families and
(2) to encourage people of all ages to meet God daily through the Bible and prayer so that they may come to personal faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, grow in Christian maturity and become both committed church members and servants of a world in need.
There are equally explicit guidelines provided by the Queensland Education Department stating that there will be no evangelism or proselytism by school chaplains, a condition SU claims to accept. In practice, however (from my personal experience), these guidelines are not strictly followed and in some instances are blatantly ignored.
So where to from here?
Schools do need caring people on the ground who are free to be among and to support students in an informal way. These people should have basic counselling qualifications (as recommended by the Australian Psychological Society), but they should not have a religious (or other) agenda. Generous fringe benefit tax arrangements are one way that SU currently manages to have so many chaplains on the ground; if the government is serious about supporting students (as Minister Garrett claims to be), it may just have to bite the bullet and put in the money to do so.
One thing is clear: it is not acceptable to contract this important work out to organisations with a narrow religious (or come to that, secular) agenda. Children in state schools are our future citizens, not a crop ripe to harvest for the Lord.