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Jun 3, 2014

Jesus is coming -- to your local primary school

The government is all about austerity -- except when it comes to putting Christian chaplains in state schools. We investigate how the scheme works, who's using it, and how you become a chaplain.

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Interested in a taxpayer-funded job in a state school? There are some going, and here are the prerequisites:

  • subscribe to one or both of the creeds of the Christian church (Apostles’ Creed and/or Nicene Creed);
  • demonstrate a living and personal relationship with Jesus Christ;
  • demonstrate strong Christian character evidenced by “servant leadership”; and
  • demonstrated ability to apply the teachings of the Bible to real-life situations.

Unfortunately, if you’re not up with the Nicene Creed then you can’t be a chaplain in a state school. At least not with the Scripture Union Queensland, one of the major chaplain providers (these are just some of its prerequisites).

But there’s great news for Christians who want to get their message out to children. In a tough budget that stripped the dole from unemployed people, levied a tax on GP visits and cut funding to uni students, the federal government has spent $244 million putting religious chaplains in schools.

So Crikey decided to dig around on how the scheme works, who these chaplains are, and what they’re up to.

The scheme was brought in by the Howard government in 2007 and continued by Labor, which allowed secular welfare workers to be hired as well as chaplains. The Abbott government has banned secular workers from the scheme.

Any school can apply for a chaplain; none are forced to, and not all schools get one. Most chaplains work one to three days a week with a few full-time. Schools get about $20,000 a year to hire one. The positions are usually paid.

Interestingly, the scheme’s formal guidelines are quite prescriptive — in theory. Only students with a signed consent form can be involved with the chaplain. The chaplain offers student welfare services and “spiritual guidance”. Chaplains sign a code of conduct, including that they must:

  • respect, accept and be sensitive to other people’s views, values and beliefs that may be different from his or her own, including respecting the rights of parents/guardians to ensure the moral and spiritual education of their children is in line with the family’s own convictions;
  • actively discourage any form of harassment or discrimination on the grounds of religious ideology, beliefs or sexuality; and
  • a school chaplain/student welfare worker must not take advantage of his or her privileged position to proselytise, evangelise or advocate for a particular view or belief.

There is nothing in the program’s guidelines specifying that chaplain must be Christian.

All that might sound open-minded in theory, but the reality is that this scheme is putting Christian chaplains into schools.

The government’s list of chaplain providers is dominated by Christians. I couldn’t see a single provider from another religion. Catholics, The Salvation Army, “Young Life Australia,” Macquarie Life Church, Seventh Day Adventists, Anglicans, Lutherans, Scripture Unions, “Youth for Christ,” Genr8 Schools Ministry, Fusion Australia … it’s a long list, and their websites are littered with crosses and references to Jesus and the Bible.

Scripture Union Queensland’s website laments that “teenage abortion rates are too high”. In terms of prerequisites, “a chaplain will … be a person whose beliefs and lifestyle reflect a Biblical understanding of and a commitment to the teachings, life and person of Jesus Christ”.

As for Genr8, its website says it aims to help religious groups “strengthen their ministry in NSW schools so that many more young lives will be transformed through the Lord Jesus Christ”.

Access Ministries is more specific. Its statement of belief affirms:

” … its faith in God, as One-in-Three-Persons, whose redemptive purpose for the world is revealed in the Person of Jesus Chris. That the Lord Jesus Christ proclaimed in word and deed the presence of the Kingdom of God through mission to the world …”

The Seventh Day Adventist (NSW Schools) mission statement states: “Empowered by the Holy Spirit our Church will be characterised by spirituality, teamwork, ministry, nurture and accountability.”

Southlands Christian Church is keen to get out the message that “we believe that the Lord Jesus Christ is coming back again as He promised.” But watch out; “our eternal destination of either Heaven or hell is determined by our response to the Lord Jesus Christ”.

There is a certain parallel between some organisations on the chaplain provider list and the organisations being questioned by the royal commission into child abuse (the Catholic Church, Salvation Army etc).

So, who’s using these chaplains? A FOI request which came through last September revealed there were just over 3500 schools participating in the scheme, and 82% of workers are religious chaplains (the other 18% are secular welfare workers).

For a more detailed breakdown we’ve gone back to figures from the federal Education Department in mid-2012. Crikey has graphed the data, which shows most chaplains are placed in public schools, and mostly in primary schools. (This data includes some secular welfare workers hired under the scheme, but they were a minority — 15%. Soon there will be none.)

Number of people employed under school chaplain program

Queensland is the epicentre of the chaplain program; there are more than 1000 working there. Next comes Victoria with just under 750, and NSW is third with 670.

Queensland man Ron Williams successfully challenged the way the program was funded in the High Court back in 2012. The then-Labor government changed the laws to circumvent the decision. Williams is now back in court challenging the scheme again. Last month he told the ABC; “this is simply about seeing that the Commonwealth doesn’t keep funding such exercises. It got completely out of hand and has now cost nearly half a billion dollars.”

Amen to that.

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