Religious-based discrimination in school chaplaincy program sending ‘wrong message’

Si Gladman / 04 May 2021

The Morrison government is spending millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money each year on a chaplaincy program that is discriminating against people of minority faiths and people of no faith.

In his RSA Webinar presentation last week, Dr Luke Beck said that all job advertisements for chaplaincy positions under the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) were limited to Christians.

“If you were to go online right now on any of the job ad websites and look for a school chaplain position, you will find a bunch of ads for school chaplains in government or public schools and the selection criteria will say something like, ‘Must be Christian’, or must be a active member of their local church,” he said.

“So in other words, if you are an atheist, or a Jew, or a Buddhist, or a Muslim or a Hindu, or if you are some other kind of non-Christian, you are not able to get a job in a public school to provide pastoral care, even if you are fully qualified. That’s a problem.”

A number of state human rights and equal opportunities commissioners agree with the Rationalist Society of Australia that the discriminatory hiring practices are legally problematic.

Western Australia’s Equal Opportunity Commissioner John Byrne agreed that the practice of restricting chaplaincy positions to Christians constituted “prima facie religious conviction discrimination”.

Queensland’s Human Rights Commissioner Scott McDougall told the RSA he would write to the Department of Education to “suggest changes [to the school chaplains program] addressing potential contraventions of the [the state’s Anti-Discrimination] Act”.

Victoria’s Human Rights Commissioner Kristen Hilton said “we agree that the program may be in breach of [Victoria’s] Equal Opportunity Act 2010”.

Chaplains are appointed under the NSCP through outsourcing arrangements with Christian supplier organisations.

The federal government provides more than $61 million each year in its budget for the states and the Northern Territory to fund NSCP roles in public schools. The Australian Capital Territory is the only jurisdiction to refuse federal funding for religious chaplains in favour of self-funding secular youth workers and social workers.

Dr Beck said the built-in religious-based discrimination of the NSCP was sending the wrong message to young people.

“Religious discrimination is bad generally. But, I think in a public school program, it is even especially worse,” he said.

“What kind of message does that send to young people in Australia – that religious discrimination is okay? We should not be sending a message to students in public schools that it’s okay to discriminate against people on the basis of their religion.”

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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