Action Alert February 2011
This is an archived edition of Action Alert.
A Legal Challenge to Chaplaincy Funding
Ron Williams, a Toowoomba man, has launched a legal challenge in the High Court against the Federal Government’s funding of school chaplaincy under the National Schools Chaplaincy Program (NSCP). Mr Williams is relatively well known as an opponent of anything ‘spiritual’ in State schools and has previously challenged the place of religious education in the school curriculum.
Mr Williams has conducted a lengthy campaign against school chaplaincy since the NSCP was introduced in 2006 by the Howard Government. Mr Williams’ own authorised media release says, in part, “After years of correspondence and meetings with then Federal Education Minister Julia Gillard, state education and DEEWR executives as well as personal meetings with two Education Ministers and their Directors General, in 2009, a frustrated Mr Williams sought advice regarding a possible High Court challenge …”. It is obvious that Mr Williams is conducting a determined campaign against school chaplaincy!
In February 2010, the law firm of Horowitz & Bilinsky agreed to accept Mr Williams’ case and appointed Mr Bret Walker SC (one of Australia’s best constitutional lawyers) and Mr Gerald Ng to represent Mr Williams before the High Court. The Australian Secular Lobby, along with individuals opposed to the presence of chaplains in State schools, is funding Mr Williams’ challenge.
On 20 December 2010, a Writ of Summons and Statement of Claim was issued out of the High Court of Australia, and 10 to 12 May 2011 has been tentatively set aside for the matter to be heard by the full bench of the Court in Canberra. It is expected that the High Court will then take up to six months to deliberate before handing down its verdict.
Significantly, the case is not about schools having chaplains and the chaplains’ access to students in State schools; the case only relates to the legality under the law of the Federal Government providing funding for chaplains under the NSCP. Section 116 of the Australian Constitution states, “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.” Mr Williams, as the plaintiff in the case, is arguing along two broad lines –
- There is no federal constitutional power under which the Commonwealth can make payments for school chaplaincy. The argument is put several ways – that there is no specific Federal power; that it is something within the power of the States and that chaplaincy does not involve an issue of national importance requiring national action by the Federal Government.
- The Commonwealth has imposed a religious test qualification on “Commonwealth Officers”, in breach of the constitutional prohibition on the Commonwealth making a law regarding the establishment of a religion or inhibiting religious freedom. They are arguing that as chaplains are receiving federal funding they should be classed as “Commonwealth Officers” and therefore it is unconstitutional to insist that they require "formal ordination, commissioning, recognised qualification or endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution or a state or territory- approved chaplaincy service" [wording from the NSCP guidelines].
Mr Williams’ children attend the Darling Heights State School in Toowoomba, and this case only relates to the chaplaincy service at that school [which is why Scripture Union Queensland is listed as one of the defendants but not other chaplaincy employers in other States]. However, if the case is successful, it will have application to the Federal funding of all school chaplains under the NSCP, and may even have an impact on the funding of chaplaincy in the Australian Defence Forces and Australian Federal Police.
Although our Federal parliamentarians are unable to intervene in the case [it is a legal and constitutional matter before the High Court], they will be required to deal with the verdict of the case, especially if Mr Williams is successful. It is entirely appropriate that we remind the Prime Minister (who, in August 2010, committed the Federal Government to a continuation and an expansion of the NSCP) and our local Federal MP that we support the funding of school chaplains under the NSCP.
Contact Julia Gillard, Prime Minister [PO Box 6022, House of Representatives, Parliament House, Canberra, ACT, 2600, or phone (02) 62777700, or email at the website http://pm.gov.au/PM_Connect/Email_your_PM]. Contact your local Federal MP – if you are unsure of his / her details go to www.aph.gov.au to get the information. Thank the Prime Minister for her support of the NSCP scheme, and advise both the PM and your local Federal MP that you continue to support the funding of school chaplaincy through the NSCP. Acknowledge the current High Court challenge, and urge the PM and your local Federal MP to find an alternative funding pathway if the High Court challenge is successful.
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Who will stand up for me against evildoers?
Who will take his stand for me against those who do wickedness?
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This monthly release is prepared by Pastor Brian Robertson (P O Box 2367, Bundaberg, 4670) to inform Christian people about issues within our society. “Action Alert” does not promote any one political party, but encourages its readers to be “salt and light” by speaking out on some of these matters. The views expressed in “Action Alert” are those of the author and are not necessarily those of a local church or a denominational organisation. To the extent permissible by law, no church or denomination accepts liability for anything contained in this publication and any use made of it.