I’m inclined to see Audrey Statham as a bright spot in the intellectual landscape of Australian secular policy thinking.  She’s got a sharp mind and has written some insightful pieces, but her most recent contribution on the Chaplaincy issue seems to equivocate about what is really going on.

First, her scholarship misses an important point, namely that “Chaplains” have been operating in schools much longer than they have been funded by the Commonwealth.  I’m sure she knows this, but her essay seems to discuss this situation as one arising with the advent of funding in 2006.  That’s wrong.  The Department of Education has contracts going back much farther than this with church organisations to partner around pastoral care.

What changed in 2006 was that this became politicised by becoming a funding programme supported not by agreements between church groups and the various departments of Education, but between the Federal Government.  When it became a federal funding programme, it automatically became subject to the rules of how money can be spent.

Stratham goes on to discuss her ideas about “Australian Secularism”, but she simply refuses to discuss what is actually happening in the transaction in question, or apply her logic to that transaction.

Specifically, she says:

From the standpoint of lived experience in Australian society, Australian secularism includes as its most fundamental and precious value the freedom of citizens to be non-religious or religious, and the freedom to co-exist and engage democratically with others who have very different worldviews from one’s own.

Recovering the understanding of “secular” as an inclusive term is vital for creating an environment that is not exclusionary of those who have religious faith or those who don’t – but, rather, as an environment that encourages the participation of diverse perspectives.

Okay, lets go with that, and look at how the Government wants to spend the money.  Specifically what they propose to do is to only give money to groups who hire people who will affirm specific religious beliefs.

Is that OK?

No.  No one is suggesting that the people being served have a reason to need “religious services” (saying of last rights, administering sacraments, hearing of confession, etc … ), yet no one will clarify why the contracting should only be routed though groups hiring on confessional grounds.

Stratham seems to agree with this point because she says:

 A school chaplaincy program that excludes funding for welfare officers on the grounds that they are non-religious does not count as “secular”. Such a “non-secular” scheme fosters undemocratic, closed-minded attitudes and painful antagonisms between people with very different worldviews within Australian society.

But this is EXACTLY what is going on with the current system.  The Liberal Government wants to only give money to people who will affirm their belief in religious creeds, by only giving contracts to groups that hire on confessional grounds.

The Government is explicit saying that they only want to create funding contracts with groups that meet a religious test – and in so doing they wish to make rules that defy the expectations other citizens have about how their government should function.  They want “special rules” that exclude others.

Stratham aslo says:

By the same token, the implementation in state schools of a school chaplaincy program that is “secular” – in the sense of being open towards funding either a religious chaplain or a non-religious counsellor – is crucial for promoting democratic attitudes of openness towards difference on the part of both non-religious and religious students, and in Australia as a whole.

I would argue that the schools already do “promote democratic attitudes of openness towards difference on the part of both non-religious and religious students” but that they do this by refusing to hire or fire on religious grounds, and they also ask people to limit institutional behavior and activity in the schools to “secular” activity.  There is no proposal on the table to limit a Christian from taking a job, the only proposal on the table is to prohibit a non Christian from getting the job, by only contracting with groups chosen for their “religious hiring practices”.

The “chaplain programme” should be seen as a system that was politicized by religious groups, by extending what was a voluntary partnership into a paid, ongoing, exclusive contract that was instantly made into part of a political agenda.  This is what undermines “Australian Secularism”.

The agenda here is not mysterious at all, and the cause of the problem is not on the side of those who want to end “confessional hiring” for welfare workers in schools, it is entirely on the side of a politically active religious faction who is completely disingenuous about their motives and their agenda, if these groups want to take money from the Commonwealth they should not be expected to be exempt from the standards we expect as citizens to not be discriminated against by our government’s actions.

That is exactly what is going on here and why it should stop.

Stratham ends with a plea:

Social conditions necessary for exercising democratic freedoms don’t just materialise out of thin air; they need to be created. If non-religious and religious Australians are to collaborate together in fostering social conditions that can reinvigorate a democratic way of life, then the Australian lived experience of secularism needs to be cherished.

The issue here is that the “basis” on which “religious and non-religious” people can collaborate is being upset here by imposing a religious test for employment where there is no reason to have one.  The “secular” basis of democracy is one where religion does not form part of the state’s rule making or funding process.  The only threat to our “way of life” here is being waged by group seeking to make religion a condition of employment, the solution is to make religion a non issue by hiring on criteria that do not involve affirming specific religious creeds – the advocates of Chaplains in schools refuse to acknowledge that this is what they mean.



Scott Ryan’s bible is bigger than average