Challenging religious discrimination in government chaplaincy programs

Governments fund and operate a number of chaplaincy programs in Australia. Chaplaincy (sometimes also referred to as spiritual care, pastoral care or social health) provides emotional and social support to people in a range of settings.

The RSA is opposed to discrimination on the ground of religion or belief. We are working to ensure that all qualified people – regardless of their religious affiliation or lack of religious affiliation – are eligible to work as ‘chaplains’.

School chaplains

The National School Chaplaincy Program is a federally-funded program operated by state and territory education departments. The program enables youth workers to work in schools. Education departments typically enter into contracts with providers, under which the provider will provide a chaplain to work at a school under the direction of the school principal.

Victoria

In 2018, the RSA provided support to a non-religious school chaplain, Juliette Armstrong, to bring a discrimination claim against a chaplaincy provider organisation and the Victorian Department of Education and Training. When Juliette’s contract expired, she was unable to find another school chaplain job because all the jobs currently advertised required applicants to be Christian, even though the jobs were for placements in government schools.

Juliette commenced proceedings in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) arguing that the provider had contravened Victoria’s laws against religious discrimination and that the Victorian Department of Education and Training had contravened Victoria’s laws against authorising or assisting religious discrimination. The case settled.

In early 2019, the Victorian Department of Education and Training changed its chaplains policy documentation to expressly provide that non-religious people are eligible to be employed as school chaplains.

You can read about the school chaplaincy challenge in The Guardian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Saturday Paper.

A number of chaplaincy providers in Victoria continue to limit government school chaplaincy positions to Christians, and the Victorian Department of Education and Training appears to turn a blind eye to this.

The RSA is continuing its efforts to remove discriminatory hiring practices from the school chaplains program in Victoria.

Queensland

In late 2020, the RSA made a complaint to the Queensland Human Rights Commission. The RSA complained that only Christians are eligible to apply to work as a chaplain/youth worker in Queensland public schools. Other qualified youth workers are not eligible. Queensland’s Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 makes religious discrimination unlawful.

In early 2021, Queensland Human Rights Commissioner Scott McDougall wrote to the RSA saying:

In response to your letter, I will write to the Department of Education to suggest changes [to the school chaplains program] addressing potential contraventions of the [Qld Anti-Discrimination] Act.

The RSA will be keeping an eye on things to see what changes are made.

Hospital chaplains

Chaplains work in various healthcare settings, including in hospitals. Some hospitals have non-religious chaplains. ABC Radio National’s Soul Search program broadcast an episode on secular spiritual care in March 2019 featuring an interview with a non-religious hospital chaplain.

In 2019, Safer Care Victoria (the Victorian Government’s healthcare quality and safety improvement agency) endorsed Guidelines for Quality Spiritual Care in Victoria, which had been drafted by a non-government organisation. Those Guidelines appeared to limit public hospital and healthcare chaplaincy jobs to religious people.

An RSA board member wrote to Safer Care Victoria pointing out that the Guidelines appear to contravene Victoria’s laws against religious discrimination in employment and that Safer Care Victoria’s endorsement of those Guidelines appears to contravene Victoria’s laws against authorising, assisting or encouraging religious discrimination.

Safer Care Victoria then took steps to ensure that revisions were made to the Guidelines to provide more focus on the inclusion of people who provide non-religious or non-faith-based spiritual care in hospitals and to state that hospital chaplains “can be of any faith or of no faith.”

Military chaplains

Each branch of the Australian Defence Force employs chaplains. Military chaplains must be affiliated with one of the small number of faith groups approved by the military. People who are not religious or who are affiliated with other faith groups are not eligible. Over half of defence force personnel are not religious.

In 2018, the RSA provided support to a Canberra-based humanist hospital chaplain, Justin Murray, who was prevented from applying for a military chaplain job because he is not religious. A complaint was lodged with the Australian Human Rights Commission alleging that the military’s hiring practices amount to religious discrimination.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has the ability to attempt to conciliate complaints of religious discrimination in employment and to make reports to the Attorney-General in cases where it finds a breach of international human rights law prohibitions against religious discrimination.

You can read about the military chaplains challenge in The Guardian and listen to an interview with Justin Murray on The Iron Fist and the Velvet Glove podcast.

In 2020, the Royal Australian Navy introduced non-religious equivalents to chaplains, who would be hired on merit regardless of their religious affiliation. The Navy Daily reported that “Maritime Spiritual Wellbeing Officers (MSWO) will be introduced from July 2020 to provide Navy people and their families with professional, non-religious pastoral care and spiritual support.”

The RSA likes to think that the Australian Human Rights Commission complaint helped bring about this welcome development. The Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force both continue the discriminatory practice of having only religious chaplains.

 

All the more reason.

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