The Gillard Government has taken the middle road in making changes to the national school chaplaincy program; $222 million has been committed to extend the program until 2014. But now schools can elect to have non-religious person fill the role as a secular worker and still use the $20,000 grant scheme.
Chaplains have really become budget student counsellors under the program. Since 2006, it has been rolled out to 2681 schools, 28 per cent are public schools. While the school applies for a chaplain to DEEWR, the funding is administered to a third party employer, in most cases a Christian organisation like Access Ministries who then engage a person to be a chaplain at the school.
Chaplains have a set of guidelines from the Government which prohibit proselytising, which they adhere to by signing a code of conduct.
A chaplain is, according to the NSCP guidelines, to provide “general religious and personal advice to those seeking it, comfort and support to students and staff”. There is a prohibition against trying to convert someone to their religion.
Seventeen per cent of the 277 complaints to DEEWR since the program’s inception have been allegations of proselytising. Is this the fine line where the difficulty starts? Is preaching the same as trying to convert? There are so many issues and advice from religious counsellors which would inevitably reflect on their broad religious and Christian views that it renders the line not as much blurred, as artificial.
The Government has attempted to address the issue by clarifying the expectations of a Chaplain in the new guidelines, following a report by the Commonwealth Ombudsman in July. The report says parents had complained to the ombudsman that the chaplain issue had divided the school community.
Many other parents were simply uncomfortable with the possibility, as former NSW premier Bob Carr put it: “If you give a religious fundamentalist access to a school to counsel students, it is only a matter of time before he gives into the temptation to collect a few young converts on the way. While he is, in effect, on the taxpayer payroll”.
A central lobbying group, the “Stop the National Schools Chaplaincy Program!” was formed in 2008 with support from groups like Atheist Foundation and the Rationalist Society.
Currently, a Queensland Dad is taking the matter to the High Court, alleging the Government contravenes s116 of the Constitution for making chaplains take a ‘religious test’ to adhere to NCSP guidelines. This may all be evidence of an angry new atheism.
The Government’s announcement last Wednesday may or may not be a response to the secular backlash. Schools will now have the choice whether they want a chaplain or a secular worker – a definite dilution of the Chaplaincy program.
Within hours of the announcement on Wednesday, the Australian Christian Lobby issued a press release saying the Chaplaincy program must not be secularised and called for a separate funding source for secular workers.
The need for more funding for Chaplains may not prove to be necessary as the ACL contends. If schools are given a choice, many will simply want a secular youth worker.
If it wasn’t for the controversy, this was simply an announcement for more youth workers in schools. On the face of it, all the Government is doing now is providing schools and parents with extra funding and extra choice. This was the reaction from one reader on ACL’s website:
“If Christianity wasn’t so methodically and consistently attacked in this country… The hypocrisy of Australia is that while they reject any Christian teaching, they happily accept (and expect) our services, our time and money to meet the needs of all the godless carnage.”
Indeed, our Prime Minister has not been embraced by Christian voters. While there was a swing to the ALP amongst Muslims, Buddhists and Atheists – Christians, and particularly people from evangelical churches, swung against Gillard at the 2010 election.
Research from former ALP Senator John Black’s Australian Development Strategies, suggested the four seats with the biggest Pentecostal populations had a 7.2 per cent swing against Labor. There a few reasons for this.
One is the Gillard Government is simply not conservative enough on social issues. In the Australian Christian Values Institute how to vote sheet for the 2010 election, the ALP scored just 3 ticks out of 22 questions on policy standpoints, while the Liberals scored 14, Family First and the Christian Democratic Party scored a full 22.
Almost all the questions of the ACVI’s vote sheet related to marriage, family or censorship.
The ALP still did not have a tick from the institute on the issue of school chaplains, despite extending the program under Rudd in 2008. Interestingly, Rudd who wrote long essays about how his religion informed his politics, also scored just 3 out of 22 ticks on ACVI’s 2007 sheet. Yet, in the 2007 election, most voters in evangelical church groups swung to Rudd.
This only points to the elephant in the room.
No matter how much Ms Gillard talks about her Baptist upbringing and love of bible stories, she is unmarried atheist without children. For people who see family, marriage and religion as the centre of a healthy society, their lives and perhaps their salvationm, her private life would inevitably lead to suspicion about her character.
In response to the defence of Ms Gillard’s honesty about her atheism, former Australian Family Association Vice President Bill Muehlenberg said “An unashamed paedophile who extols his lifestyle is also being honest; does that make his activities commendable then?… To reject Christ and his provision for salvation is not to show respect; it is to show the highest disrespect. …”.
If it’s aggressive atheism against zealous evangelical Christianity, then Gillard will be hoping she walked down the middle road in a way that leaves both groups still in her sight.