Given the School Chaplaincy program is up for review in this year’s federal budget it’s only natural there is a debate about whether or not it should be funded. Critics, including the Australian Rationalist Society, leave no doubt as to their opinion, arguing there is no place for chaplaincy programs in government schools, as they are secular and, supposedly, because there are too many examples of chaplaincy programs pushing extreme religious views. These are depicted as “denigrating” and “harming” students.
The first thing to note is that there are two different programs operating in government schools around Australia and it is wrong to treat the two as equivalent. The first involves Special Religious Instruction (SRI) classes and the second involves the School Chaplaincy program.
Whereas SRI involves formal lessons with associated curriculum material, the second involves schools receiving funding to employ a chaplain to act as a counsellor and to offer students, teachers and parents social, emotional and spiritual guidance and support. Criticisms concerning alleged examples of unacceptable religious materials finding their way into schools relate to the Special Religious Instruction classes and not school chaplains.
It should also be remembered that the chaplaincy program is voluntary and that in order to receive funding there are strict guidelines that must be agreed to. Parents must give consent before their children are involved, chaplains must not preach or advocate for a religion, and they must also abide by a Code of Conduct that ensures students are not discriminated against because of their sexuality or gender or whether they are religious or not.
And while there are critics it’s also true that there are many who support the continuation of the chaplaincy program. The Education Minister Simon Birmingham recently argued in a radio interview “many schools find it a valuable additional resource”, adding that “chaplains bring a different perspective, but a very helpful one, to dealing with students in times of crisis and need.”
Contrary to the belief that because government schools are secular and there is no place for initiatives like the chaplaincy programme, or religion more generally, it also should be noted that state-based legislation allows government schools to include religion in the school day.
In Victoria and NSW, for example, legislation permits both religious instruction classes as well as students being taught about what the Victorian act describes as: “the major forms of religious thought and expression characteristic of Australian society and other societies in the world”.
The national road map for Australian schools, the Melbourne Declaration, also suggests religion is allowed when it states that the school curriculum should address moral and spiritual values. In an increasingly materialistic, ego centred world it’s vital that students understand the importance of the transcendent.
Not surprisingly the body responsible for developing the national curriculum, on which state and territory curricula are based, also suggests religion is important when arguing that students have the right “to learn about different religions, spiritualities and ethical beliefs”.
In Western liberal democracies, such as Australia, Christianity and the Bible, especially the New Testament, underpin our way of life. So much of Western culture’s literature, history, music and art are steeped in Christianity and it makes sense that students are given the opportunity to learn about what is Australia’s major religion.
To argue that chaplains be allowed in government schools and that there be a greater focus on teaching about religion, either through Special Religious Instruction classes or more generally in the school curriculum, is not to preach or try to convert students. To be culturally literate and fully understand and appreciate what underpins Western civilisation students need to be familiar with the contribution and significance of Christianity.
It’s also vital, given the high rates of anxiety, depression and self-harm among so many young people, that they are able to seek the help of someone in the school experienced and qualified to give support – especially at a time when students are surrounded by a 24/7 digital world involving cyberbullying, sexting and online pornography it’s even more urgent that chaplains are in schools.
Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of How Political Correctness is Destroying Australia (forthcoming Wilkinson Press)