Commissioner raises concern over religious discrimination in WA school chaplaincy program

Si Gladman / 19 April 2021

The head of Western Australia’s Equal Opportunity Commission has expressed his concern about religious discrimination taking place in the hiring practices of chaplains in the state’s public school system.

In a letter to the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA), Commissioner John Byrne (pictured) agreed with the suggestion that the practice of restricting chaplaincy positions to Christians constituted “prima facie religious conviction discrimination”.

Earlier this year, the RSA wrote to the state’s Equal Opportunity Commission to point out that the selection criteria for taxpayer-funded chaplaincy roles being advertised for WA public schools were discriminating against non-Christians.

While the Department of Education does not itself directly advertise the positions, it contracts with the external organisations that recruit the chaplains.

“I agree that under the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (the Act) such a selection criterion is prima facie religious conviction discrimination in the areas of employment and advertisements,” Mr Byrne wrote.

“Further, as the educational authority is the Department of Education, none of the Act’s religious exceptions that might be relied upon by a private educational institution apply.”

Mr Byrne urged the RSA to write to the state’s Department of Education to seek rectification.

Dr Meredith Doig, president of the RSA, has since asked the Department of Education what steps it would be taking to reform the school chaplains program to remove the religious discrimination.

“Western Australia’s Equal Opportunity Act makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person on the basis of religion in employment. Putting out job advertisements that say only Christians are eligible prima facie contravenes this rule,” says Dr Doig.

“The Act also it makes it unlawful to cause, instruct, induce, aid or permit another person to engage in religious discrimination. So paying someone else to put out a job advertisement that says only Christians can apply also prima facie contravenes this rule.

“There is no justification for this conduct. Any trained youth worker – whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or atheist – is perfectly capable of performing the role of chaplain.”

The RSA is also currently pushing for similar changes to discriminatory recruitment practices occurring in Queensland, Tasmania and Victoria.

The chaplaincy roles in question include those funded under the National Schools Chaplaincy Program, which receives more than $61 million a year from the federal government and is operated by state and territory education departments.

Education departments typically enter into contracts with providers who place chaplains to work at a school under the direction of the school principal.

Join the RSA Webinar on 28 April 2021 when Dr Luke Beck, a constitutional law expert at Monash University, will present on the unnecessary religious discrimination built into government-funded chaplaincy programs and what the RSA is doing to fight these practices. Register here.

Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman.

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