Funding for school chaplains has been declared constitutionally invalid for the second time by the High Court of Australia
In handing down its decision, the High Court ruled that the provision of welfare workers in schools is not a “benefit to students”. Specifically, the constitution does not permit the following benefits to be considered capable of government funding: "strengthening values, providing pastoral care and enhancing engagement with the broader community”.
It is a disappointing day for the school communities across the nation who value the work of school chaplains.
However, Peter James, spokesperson for the National School Chaplaincy Association and Chief Executive of Scripture Union Queensland said, “While the High Court has ruled against the current model, the court has acknowledged federal funding can continue for chaplaincy through state/territory grants”.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott has reassured the community of the government’s commitment to the program when he said it “very much supports [the program] and wants it to continue”. It follows the announcement in May to continue to fund the program a further $244 million over four years.
In the Senate Question time today, Senator Brandis said "It is important to note that in arriving at that conclusion, the Court did not deal with the merits of the program, merely that the question of whether it fell within a particularly constitutional definition". Read more of Senator Brandis' comments
The challenge is the second time Toowoomba father of six Ron Williams has brought the issue of school chaplaincy to the High Court. In 2012 he sued the Commonwealth and Scripture Union Queensland, seeking to have the scheme stuck down. The High Court agreed that the legislation which existed at that time was invalid.
Immediately afterward, the Gillard government passed emergency legislation to protect the program. The new legislation sought to rely on section 51(xxiiiA) of the Constitution, which allows the federal government to provide funding for “benefits to students”.
The ACL will continue to advocate for the program to ensure an appropriate funding model can be adopted by government so school communities can benefit from the support of a school chaplain.
Two university studies on the program have shown school communities overwhelming value the role the chaplains provide.
Get informed about the issue by reading the National School Chaplaincy Association’s fact sheet Dispelling Myths and Answering Questions.