Keep The Proselytisers Where They Belong


One of the more controversial policies announced by the Treasurer in the recent budget was the decision to pledge $222 million to the National School Chaplaincy Program. The scheme has been dogged by claims chaplains have been proselytising to students, and critics argue the money could be better spent on trained counsellors if pastoral care is at stake.

The debate has been characterised as a sellout by our elected representatives to the Australian Christian Lobby and its allies in the National School Chaplaincy Association, but, distasteful as it is, the last 50 years of state sponsored religion in schools should indicate it’s not an aberration. We have no constitutionally entrenched separation of church and state, and outsourcing state functions to religious institutions has been, for the last half-century, a stronger tradition than secularism.

In 1962, Goulburn, a town in NSW notable only for its giant, betesticled concrete merino, was the site of a general Catholic school strike that led to the first state compromises with the religious establishment over education.

After conducting health inspections, the Commonwealth demanded St Brigids, a local Catholic school, install three extra toilets. The local bishop, John Cullinane, told the government it couldn’t be done, arguing the funding didn’t exist. The resulting stoush led to the local Catholic schools — Goulburn has always been staunchly Catholic — closing their doors and spewing 1900 students into the town’s state schools. 

While the students were probably unfazed by the episode, getting a free pass from school and escaping the ruler-slaps of Goulburn’s brothers and nuns, the town’s government schools were unable to cope with the demand.

The strike generated national discussion, and in the following year Bob Heffron’s right wing Catholic NSW Labor government made attempts to placate their brothers in faith by promising state-funded science labs in non-government schools. The party bureaucracy knocked the proposal back.

In response, Menzies proposed state aid for Catholic schools for the first time in order to wedge the Labor party — their left wing federal executive wouldn’t broach the possibility of funding independent schools, and Menzies could steal votes from Catholics who would traditionally vote Labor.

The subject of state funding of non-government schools, including religious schools, has been incorporated into both parties’ policymaking ever since. Whitlam campaigned on the issue inside the federal Labor party and in public during the early 1970s; more recent attempts by Mark Latham and others to examine state aid by decoupling the private schools debate were met with electoral failure and vitriol. Political necessity, pork barreling and the ease of outsourcing some educational functions to religious third parties has beaten secularism in political discourse, especially where the church is sanitised as yet another civil society actor.

In 1965 one of Australia’s first secular lobbies — the Council for Defence of Government Schools, which took the unfortunate acronym DOGS — emerged from the Goulburn schools’ strike. In 1981 they had sufficient legal standing to question state aid’s constitutionality in the High Court, in what became known as the State Aid or DOGS case, based on section 116 of the constitution, the "religious test" provision. 

The result was twofold. Firstly, the High Court of Sir Ninian Stephen upheld the validity of state aid. Secondly, the court played its traditional role, reading the constitution narrowly to find that section 116 did not amount to a separation of church and state provision, and was a mere "denial of legislative power to the Commonwealth" — meaning the Commonwealth could not legislate for a state religion, but otherwise had no distinct "wall of separation". This precedent does not bode well for the current High Court challenge on essentially the same issue. 

Current commentary on the Gillard government’s decision to continue funding school chaplaincy has missed the historical point that Australians are loath to draw bold lines between secular and religious education, because secularism as a value is not enshrined in our constitution, and there have always been more votes from travelling with religion than fighting against it.

This hasn’t stopped commentators from suggesting otherwise, and in some cases denying their own involvement in the detente.

Bob Carr, former NSW Premier-turned ALP revisionist, has recently slammed the $222 million pumped into the scheme, which is delivered almost exclusively by sole operators like ACCESS Ministries and Scripture Union. He says it’s "resulted in breaches of what should be a very thick wall between church and state" and that it’s naive to expect chaplains not to proselytise.

All well and good for the man who let initial proposals for secular ethics classes drown during his premiership because there wasn’t enough community support and who thinks "common sense" will prevail in issues of religion in a country that has no legal framework inside which faith may exist. On the failed 1988 referendum that proposed to entrench religious freedom, Carr said it was a resounding indication of Australians’ opposition to creating religious vilification laws and commitment to freedom.

In the pompous, nebbish style for which he has become famous, Carr doesn’t take another step and dare to consider that religious vilification laws, school chaplaincy issues, and any number of other teacup-localised storms might be solved by levering church and state further apart — the whole point of secularism to begin with. Might the debate be reinvigorated by a well-regarded and purportedly secular ex-premier? Yeah, and we have an atheist PM — pull the other one.

Aside from the benefits to nonbelievers from a new emphasis on secularism, the establishment church has an interest in trying to keep their image as rational, civil society players, lest they be lumped with the rabid dogmatists that dominate religious discourse in the 21st century. ACCESS, and their fellow travellers in the evangelical Protestant faith are not like your Goulburn Catholics or local Uniting Church cake rafflers — their brand of Christianity is much more virulent.

ACCESS CEO Dr Evonne Paddison has been quoted ad nauseum in the press urging her fellow evangelists to make disciples out of students, and a recent scandal over anti-teacher Christian cartoons has also been widely reported, but alleged incidents of chaplains taking liberties with their students have encompassed far more sinister acts.

Australian Rationalist Magazine’s Spring 2010 editorial details how chaplains are often responding to mental health issues as core business, with some disturbing results. According to the editorial, Queensland girls with eating disorders and depression had exorcisms performed upon them by Mercy Ministries’ chaplains, who also responded to incidents of self-harm with prayer, rather than psychiatric intervention.

The article quotes an online response to the chaplaincy incidents that some "endemic problems in students have a spiritual/demonic dimension and therefore no amount of psychological treatment will help them. My experience is that chaplains can often detect this and are able to help."

Chaplains quoted in the editorial were also allegedly responsible for putting two grade five kids on suicide watch, for ministering to pregnant teenagers and "journeying" with homosexual students. No prizes for guessing where that journey ended up.

This kind of behaviour is utterly toxic to all involved — the schools who cannot refuse approaches from ACCESS and the like, the students who are preyed upon, and local religious communities whose civil society standing is undermined by the rabid conduct of evangelical chaplains, and our leaders who state, po-faced, that they are unaware of complaints. 

This is why secularism is a virtue. It prevents all of us — religious or otherwise — from having our tolerant society smeared by this kind of rubbish. Churches and secularist groups alike should take up the battle to change the Australian settlement’s historical muddle and keep the proselytisers where they belong — in church.


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