Mitchell Goff on the National Schools Chaplaincy Program
‘Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof“, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.’
These, of course, are the eternal words of Thomas Jefferson and they found their greatest manifestation in the US Constitution under the First Amendment. Similarly in Australia, we have quasi-secular codification under section 116. Though apparently, according to successive federal governments, the authors may as well have avoided writing it at all. I’m alluding of course to the ever-expanding belly of the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP). Unlike other church-state apologists, I will not make any arguments at all in favour of any form of the program’s existence, and instead retort some common arguments that are often used in favour of the program and provide arguments for the removal of the program entirely. If you are not a secularist and don’t believe the a priori arguments in favour of secularism, you needn’t read on.
Whenever you attempt to criticise this program (go on, try it) you will undoubtedly be met with the same tired old defences, and they go something like this:
1. Chaplains do ‘good’ in our schools and that is sufficient to warrant the continuation of their funding arrangements. ’
Understanding, of course, that ‘good’ in itself is a very problematic term, these arguments are almost always followed up by some pathetic little anecdote concerning either their own, a friend’s or an adorable little loved one’s experience with a school chaplain. Of course, being at a disadvantage, the weak of faith among us would be tempted to bow gracefully out at this point and assent to the proposition. It is not true that all chaplains do ‘good’ in our schools. It is not true that, even if they all did ‘good’, their funding arrangements would be justified. And, most importantly, it is patently absurd to suggest that in order to do ‘good’ in our schools you need to be a Christian chaplain. Yes, there are rule-breakers everywhere you look, but it does not extend to an executive directive, which is supposed to secure equity, and, furthermore, which is notoriously ambiguous and easily exploited. While the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) provides certain ‘requirements’ to be placed on the hiring of a school chaplain, one of which requires consultation with the parents of the school, the reality is that this either happens through the Parents and Friends committee; in Queensland cases said committees have been frequently stacked by evangelist Christians through the Scripture Union (SU), or not at all. In some instances, the funding agreements are arranged to the exclusion of the school entirely, the Federal Government and the NGO negotiating alone. One would hope, ordinarily, that these sorts of conditions would be sufficient to ward off proselytising by Christians, but in fact the lack of clarity and enforcement seeks only to safe-guard the practise. If you are serious about providing a secular, moral and healthy pastoral caregiver in our public schools, then, for God’s sake, introduce stricter criteria in partnership with the installation of secular counsellors so that these sorts of instances are not recurrences.
2. ‘You say you’re a secularist but in reality you’re merely pushing your own fundamentalist, atheist agenda’
Leaving aside, for a moment, the profusion of issues surrounding what exactly is an ‘atheist agenda’ (not having it all written down in some magic book poses a major problem), I will of course own up to being an increasingly outspoken atheist (some may even call me an anti-theist, I am happy to assume this label). To try and say, though, that I am concerned with removing religion entirely is fallacious and incredibly offensive. Without religion I would not have such a passion for exploring humanity’s frightening history, and I legitimately think scholarship would be worse off for it. But I think we’re all grown up enough now to understand that there needs to be a strong, insurmountably high wall, as Jefferson put it, between the church and the state. If you challenge this predication, you are a fool: just cast your mind over space, right now, or time, over history, and the exercise will provide you with all the evidence I need to convince you that you are, in fact, a fool. Unlike Christians though, this campaign (what legislation?) and countless others, especially the strong lobby against gay marriage, stem cell research, certain types of foreign aid etc., has monumental implications against people like me who do not share your beliefs. It is with unfathomable conceit and gall that you say we are encroaching upon the space of the church. If elements of the Christian lobby had their way, young earth creationism, a thoroughly credulous and vapid ‘science’, would also be taught alongside empirical science in our schools. If they accept this as fair, as the argument almost always proceeds, you then must accept the corollary that evolution and empirical science be taught in your seminaries or church-schools. But will they accept that? Of course not. So instead of prosecuting this ridiculous accusation that I am being a ‘fundamentalist’ (buzz!) it should instead be admitted that having chaplains proselytise in our public primary schools (with kids who often see them in heightened, vulnerable and emotional states and lack a compounded faculty of reason) with public and church money is an abhorrent breach of a well-grounded principle of secularism.
3. ‘Chaplains provide urgently needed assistance to kids who are struggling with mental health issues and are welcomed by principals’.
Well they shouldn’t be. Chaplains are hired on the ‘understanding’ that they will not provide any sort of psychological guidance they are unqualified for. They frequently do. As I’m sure some of my very loyal readers will know, ABC’s Hungry Beast program recently showed that the SU’s promotional ads are rife with bragging about how they are helping kids through times of severe mental distress. Call me an elitist if you want to, but I happen to think that when you’re working with a developing psyche during periods of extreme grief, it should not be left to Joseph Anycitizen to provide them with guidance. Ideally they should be sent to a school counsellor (if, of course, they haven’t had their role entirely replaced by a chaplain) or, in extreme cases, a fully qualified child psychologist. In some cases, the numbers of school counsellors to students can be upwards of 1:1500 and many schools are simply unable to cope with this chronic understaffing. Is it any small wonder that principals are happy for any additional staff they can get? Of course not. But not like this. Church groups who dictate the funding arrangements, in many cases upwards of half the salary, have an influence over the chaplain, and by extension, a government program itself. This is preposterous. The role of the state is to provide professional, measured help to our children and especially to the mental health of our children. If it’s a funding problem then fix it. But do not breach your constitution and the trust of so many Australian secularists, education unions and the Australian Psychological Society by sending in the church. If that is not a grave breach of the secular elements of our Constitution, well do kindly tell me what is?
On the 26th of July, the Commonwealth Ombudsman released a report into the NSCP responding to the concerns outlined by the Northern Territory Ombudsman late last year about a number of complaints pertinent to the operation of the program. Curiously, the report begins by admitting that: ‘While the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office acknowledges that there is a high level of community support for the Chaplaincy Program, as evidenced by the 2,675 schools currently participating in the program, we are also aware that some sectors of the community are concerned about a program that creates demand for the services of, predominantly, religious-based groups. The merit of the underlying policy is a matter for Government and was not the subject of this investigation.’ (my emphasis). Obviously, it is not the job of the Ombudsman to interpret whether or not a policy is justified off the back of a democratic principle such as secularism, but the criticism it levels in terms of the program’s operation is scathing enough.
The Ombudsman makes it unambiguous that significant improvements need to be made in order to ensure the mental health of school children, and that the Department and schools themselves must be more involved ensuring this is respected. In particular, conclusion 3.2 states that ‘Fundamental to the Chaplaincy Program is the provision of chaplaincy services. Our office has concerns that this key aspect of the program is not sufficiently defined by the Department. Further, we are concerned that there is a lack of guidance by the Department about the limits of chaplain role and behaviours’. This uncertainty is precisely what leads to breaches of ethics. Proselytising chaplains, while perhaps aware that their actions are immoral, are able to cheat the system because of the lack of transparency and accountability. So let’s withdraw the $222 million in additional funding pending review and, ideally, funnel it into secular counsellorship or even into continuing the Better Access program which the government has now flagged for cuts.
A chaplain, a priest and a bishop all walk into a State. That’s one too many.