Eliminating the Need for Chaplains in Australia's State Schools

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Email sent 22/3/10

Mr Ron Williams
c/- Howitz and Bilinsky 

Re: Donaghey K., 'Dad in Ungodly stance', Sunday Mail, 21/3/10

I noted reference in the above article to your proposed High Court Challenge to prevent the Commonwealth Government supporting 'a pro-Christian culture in state schools' through funding of chaplains. As I understand it, your challenge is based on Section 116 of the Australian constitution which requires that:

"The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth."

I should like to submit for your consideration that the complex issues involved in this can't be resolved sensibly through a High Court challenge, because changes within society over the past century have rendered this section of the constitution out of date. For example:

  • the words used in Section 116 no longer have quite the same implications that they did in 1901 (eg the only alternative 'religions' then considered would have been different Christian denominations); and
  • the issues involved in the relationship between church and state are complex, and no longer the same as in 1901 (eg while there are huge advantages in a separation of church and state, the practices of non-Western societies suggest that this is only achievable in a Judeo-Christian environment; declining Christian adherence now puts Australia at risk of losing those advantages; a close relationship with the state reduces churches' ability to operate independently; schools are pressed to provide 'values' education - and this is only feasible in the context of a broad world view (ie a religion); many world views are claimed to be 'secular' while actually being alternative 'religions'; and those who oppose 'Christian' teachings may not recognise the real current alternatives).

The best way to allow Australia's political leaders to eliminate funding for (mainly Christian) chaplains in state schools (and to restore the separation of church and state generally) would be to strengthen the capacity of churches to achieve similar outcomes independently. The above argument is presented in more detail on my web-site.


John Craig

Detailed Comments

Detailed Comments on Ron Williams' Proposed High Court Challenge

Complexities Not Recognised in the Constitution

The complex issues involved in Commonwealth funding for (often Christian) chaplains in state schools can't be resolved sensibly through a High Court challenge, because changes within society over the past century have rendered this section of the constitution out of date

Firstly, time has altered the meaning of the words contained in Section 116. For example, the primary intent of Section 116 of the constitution in 1901 would have been to prevent any particular (Christian) denomination from gaining ascendancy - as no other religion would have been seriously considered to be in contention. Likewise, the High Court Challenge web-site suggests that the National School Chaplaincy Program has promoted a 'non-secular pro-Christian culture in state schools'. However it is understood that, the original meaning of 'secular' was 'of no particular denomination' - rather than 'of no particular religion' (or even more narrowly 'of no religion').

Secondly, the relationship between church and state involves complex issues, and in some respects these are now fundamentally different to the situation in 1901 when Australia's constitution was adopted. For example:

  • while there is great benefit in the separation of church and state, this separation seems only achievable within the Judeo-Christian tradition (eg see Cultural Foundations of Western Dominance, 2001). This drew attention to: (a) the practical advantages that both individuals and governments gain when states are not embroiled in trying to determine the nature of, and enforce, morality in individual behaviour; and (b) the apparent necessity, noting the often-less-liberal practices in non-Western societies, for the morality of behaviour to be predominantly guided by individual consciences responsible to God if the liberty (which creates those practical advantages) is to be tolerated by a society's elites. Other observations about the benefits of separating church and state are in:
    • Restoring 'Faith in Politics' (2006) - which disputed the current Prime Minister's argument that churches should take a strong role in politics;
    • Continuing the Separation of Church and State (2006) and Church's Mission (2009) - which suggested why simple / unchanging religious principles in themselves were an inadequate guide to public policies, as the latter almost invariably dealt with quite complex social and economic systems;
    • Keeping Religion out of Australian Politics (2009) - which concerned: (a) criticism of a political leader for suggesting that Australia's Christian heritage remained important; and (b) the emergence of political parties seeking to enforce the separation of church and state - whose efforts would be likely to increase (rather than reduce) the role of religion in Australia's political system;
  • declining Christian adherence in Australia now puts at risk: the individual liberty; the separation of church and state; and the practical (social / economic / political) advantages derived from these (see Moral Foundations of Individual Liberty). The latter highlights the challenges to the 'Christ-ian' philosophical and theological foundations of Western societies, and the increasing pressure on political elites to pose as moral authorities (because the community's behavioural standards have declined). The (at times) 'high priestly' response by political leaders puts both individual liberty and the separation of church and state at risk;
  • close links between church and state reduce churches' ability to properly carry out their independent role (ie bringing individuals into a relationship with God). In Australia extensive government funding for church social service organisations seems to have diverted some churches' attention from their original goals towards more 'political' activities (ie church leaders' often now prefer lobbying governments and addressing political causes, rather than engagement with individuals). For this reason, it seems likely that Commonwealth funding of chaplains in state schools could also be counter-productive from a Christian viewpoint in the longer term;
  • there has been increasing pressure for state schools to teach 'values' to their students (see The Importance of Values Taught in State Schools, 2004) However it is arguably impossible to define 'values' meaningfully except in the context of a broad world-view (ie a religion, see Symons E 'State schools need religion to instill values', The Australian, 25/10/04);
  • many world views that are presented as 'secular' are in reality alternative 'religions', and thus as such should not be advocated by any government that did not wish to prefer a particular religion. For example, a non-theistic interpretation of evolution is widely advocated as appropriate for teaching in science classes, even though: (a) such an interpretation is strongly associated with a particular religious position (ie atheism); and (b) the scientific validity of that conclusion is anything but assured (see Celebrating a New Evangelical 'Religion': Atheism, 2010). Likewise symbols with strong religious implications that seem incompatible with Australia's traditions were presented as the 'spirit' of Sydney's 2010 New Year's Eve celebrations apparently because organisers were unaware of their religious significance (see Sydney's 2010 New Year's Eve Celebrations: Awakening Which 'Spirit'? , 2010). Likewise:
  • it seems that those who vigorously opposed 'Christian' traditions often don't have any serious understanding of the real current alternatives (see Philosophy and Religion: The Case for a Bigger Picture View, 2010)

Towards a Solution

Restoring the ability of Australia's churches to operate independently in providing guidance to young people seems essential to restoring the separation of church and state (see Strengthening the capacity of apolitical churches to operate independently).

Australia's legal and governance system was founded on the basis of, and requires, a social environment in which people have an understanding of life and of ethical behaviour that does not depend on external controls over individuals by human authorities. Only if such an environment is re-created, is it likely that government financial support for (usually Christian) chaplains in state schools would no longer appear necessary to politicians, concerned citizens and school principals.

How this might be achieved (ie by seriously questioning the intellectual obstacles to Christ-ian adherence that have emerged over the past century) is suggested in Philosophy and Religion: The Case for a Bigger Picture View (2010). The latter refers particularly to increasing community understanding of defects in both the modern / positivist view that 'science has all the answers' and the post-modern view that 'no answers are better than any others'.

These questions can not be resolved either politically, or through the courts.