As you know, I believe education is the key to beginning to solve all of the woes we have in society today. Yes all of them. From world hunger to population, from wars to disease, from terrorism to the production of clean and renewable energy. Each of these can be solved if we educate the people who are directly effected by them, and those who go into areas to help. In fact I can't think of one situation that cannot be made better without education, at least in the long term. Education should be about teaching people how to think about information presented to them, and never what to think. If done properly, the students will be able to decipher the facts from the fiction, and thereby become stronger and more independent adults. This can only be a benefit to Australia, and indeed the world.

The Idea

Enter stage left, the Australian government's National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP). While on the surface, and from all the rhetoric coming from the Australian government, this is a program which "assists schools and their communities to support the spiritual wellbeing of students. This may include support and guidance about ethics, values, relationships, spirituality and religious issues, the provision of pastoral care and enhanced engagement with the broader community."

That is actually a good thing. Support for children including discussing religion and spiritual well-being would be great coming from an unaffiliated and trained child-worker right? Opportunities to discuss religions and spiritual in an unbiased and comparative scenario would be beneficial to all involved, right? Teaching about ethics, values and relationships is a necessary part of every child's development right? Having someone at the schools who is independent from the school  itself and free from any religious affiliation for the children to discuss issues not directly related to the curriculum can only be a good thing, right?

Well, every good idea can falter if the application of the idea is bad, and in this instance, the application stinks to high hell.

The Problem

The Australian Government has assigned several parties to act as resources to supply the chaplains to schools, including Access Ministries, who are an evangelical Christian group, far from being independent have a self described mission "to reach students and school communities in Victoria and beyond with the transforming love of God and His Son Jesus Christ." That pretty much sums up where they are coming from, don't you think? Mike Stuchbery's article on the CEO of Access Ministries shows just how deeply this problem goes, and just to whom it is that we are entrusting our children.

This is just one of the resources the government has assigned, with others including The Scripture Union Australia, whose website states:
  1. to make God’s Good News known to children, young people and families and
  2. to encourage people of all ages to meet God daily through the Bible and prayer so that they may come to personal faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, grow in Christian maturity and become both committed church members and servants of a world in need.
I'll let you make your own judgement of that.

The Christian Influence

I would think that some of the community would expect a chaplain to be of a Christian background, but unfortunately it seems that over 98% of the money put forward by the government has been assigned to Christian chaplains, which is surprising considering on 64% of Australians consider themselves to be Christians. The table below came from the NSCP discussion paper (Word document download) created by the government in January 2011. These figures are from the 2006 census.
Religious affiliation  % of identified religions % of program funded chaplains
Christianity 63.89% 98.52%
Islam 1.71% 0.89%
Judaism 0.45% 0.52%
Buddhism 2.11% 0.03%
Hinduism 0.75% 0.00%
Other religion 0.55% 0.03%
No religion 18.67% 0.01%
Not stated 11.20% 0.00%
The same discussion paper states in chapter 4, about the kinds of issues Chaplains have had to deal with:

"The study suggests that chaplains are encountering issues that will require the support of services beyond chaplaincy. The study found that in the two weeks prior to their survey of approximately 1031 chaplains, 72 per cent of chaplains surveyed had dealt with students presenting with issues associated with mental health and depression, 50 per cent with alcohol and drug use and 44 per cent with self harm and suicide."

This is where things get scary. This show us that chaplains, mainly evangelical Christians, are dealing with very serious issues, issues that people go to university to study doctorates in before being allowed to deal  with. Depression, mental illness, drugs and alcohol and suicide are all very very serious topics, and I would not feel comfortable with someone whose answer to all of life's problems being "Don't worry, God loves you" to be the point of call for ANY child suffering from these problems.

The Constitution

I fully admit the need for students to learn about religion as part of their broader education, but I see the obvious attempts by groups such as Access Ministries to blatantly proselytize students into Christianity as an affront to our school system, and as damn close to unconstitutional. The Australian constitution states in section 116:

"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."

While technically the NSCP can be seen as flying under the radar of this section of the constitution (as it's not a new law, it's policy) I find it incredibly disingenuous of the Australian Government, the same government with this section in the constitution, to actively be pushing religion in schools.

... And Furthermore

To be told that we need a Christian chaplain to teach our children about morals and ethics is further backing up the idea that morals and ethics can only come from God, which as I've said before is not true. The longer we hold onto the notion that religion is the source of social morality, the longer we are held back from the truths of the universe, and our real place in it.

Here in Australia we have an opportunity to educate our kids in such a way that we become a great country, a forward thinking and progressive country that could lead the world in terms of innovation and technology. Yet we are moving into what can only be described as a Victorian-era education policy. This is just another example of the Australian Christian Lobby's stranglehold on our government, and further backs up why we need to blatantly state a separation of church from state in the constitution.

Many thanks to Andrew Skegg for his help with gathering information for this piece.

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