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Chaplains in Australian state schools

Australian subsidies for religion include chaplains in state schools who are cheaper than qualified school psychologists. Attempts to challenge this as unconstitutional have failed.

Australia took over from the US Constitution the ban on establishing a state religion. However,  the Australian Supreme Court has not interpreted its constitutional clause (s.116) as broadly, as the US Supreme Court. This leaves Australia with both federal and state constitutions that do not separate church and state, and that let government to subsidise religion at both levels.

Take the example of subsidised religion in Australian state schools....

“In 2006 the conservative Howard government decided that the state should pay for religion in public schools. Thus was born the National School Chaplaincy Programme. There are almost 3,000 such chaplains in Australian public schools, and the programme is expanding under the Labor government.... Exactly what chaplains are supposed to do is unclear. Guidelines suggest they are expected to provide spiritual guidance to the children, but at the same time it prohibits them from proselytising or from offering psychological counselling. Much evidence suggests that many of the chaplains in fact do both....

The chaplains aren't supposed to teach, but some have become involved in instruction activities. At Gympie State school in Queensland, the chaplain organised an attendance-optional lunchtime “science lecture”. The presentation featured John Mackay, an avowed creationist who maintains that dinosaurs co-existed with human beings.” [1]

In a High Court challenge in 2012, Australia's national school chaplaincy program was partly upheld. The Court struck down the Government's subsidies for school chaplains, but only because it found the method of funding unconstitutional since it was not authorised by legislation. That was quickly remedied.

On the larger issue of religious freedom, the Court declared that the constitution did allow chaplains in state schools. The constitution (S. 116) says that “no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any [public] office” and the claimant had argued that school chaplains faced a “religious test” for office. However, the court found that school chaplains were not Government employees, had no contract with the state and therefore held no public office. [2] Accordingly, the National Schools Chaplaincy Program itself was ruled constitutional, so long as it could be provided under legislation, rather than under the existing series of funding arrangements administered by the Commonwealth of Australia. [3]

In response ot the ruling, the programme was renamed and new laws to fund the chaplains were promptly passed. [4] Then in 2014, that too, faced a High Court challenge. Once again the funding method, but not the taxpayer-supported school chaplaincies were found to be unconstitutional. No problem, however, as the Conservative government forgave all the unconstitutional payments to the chaplains so far and said that it would another batch of laws to try to do the job.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said, "We invented the program, we support the program, we want it to continue." [5] 

For more information on this from Australia’s longest serving judge, the Hon Michael Kirby, look for "chaplains" in his 2013 talk.


Picture by Francesca Berrini, “Jesus Saves the Dinosaurs”. This is said to have appeared on the American Evangelical Conservapedia in 2007, with a screenshot posted to back up the claim.

1. Katherine Stewart, “Australia's blurred separation between church and state”, Guardian, 29 April 2012.

2. “Chaplains safe despite High Court ruling: Roxon”, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 June 2012.

3. High Court of Australia, Ronald Williams v The Commonwealth of Australia & ORS, [2012] HCA 23.

4. "Australia: High Court Strikes Down Government Funding of School Chaplains", Law Library of Congress. 

5. “Chaplains safe despite High Court ruling: Roxon”, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 June 2012.

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