by Terri M. Kelleher
Upper-house MP Fiona Patten of the Reason Party (formerly Sex Party) recently introduced her Education and Training Amendment (School Employment) Bill into the Victorian Parliament.
Ms Patten claims her Bill is to prevent religious discrimination in the engagement of chaplains in Victorian government schools. She says that a person has to be a Christian to be employed as a chaplain and that is discrimination against persons of other religions, Muslims, Hindus and Jews, and against atheists.
It is certainly the case that if a school seeks to appoint a chaplain through the federal National Schools Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) then the chaplain is provided through an accredited provider agency, most of which are Christian.
However, the Project Agreement for the National Chaplaincy Program does not require chaplains funded by the program to be Christian. It provides specifically that chaplains “may be of any faith”. Any religion can set up a chaplaincy “provider” and have it accredited by the NSCP.
It is not that only Christians can be employed as chaplains but rather that it is mainly Christian organisations that have set up chaplaincy providers and had them accredited. Those providers will, of course, provide candidates of the Christian faith.
At the same time, Victorian government schools are already able to directly engage anyone, whether religious or non-religious, as a chaplain. The Victorian Government Chaplaincy Policy (June 15, 2020) advises schools how to do so.
Fiona Patten’s Bill is designed to force government schools in Victoria to advertise for and engage chaplains directly, which would prohibit schools from sourcing chaplains through the NSCP. Under the NSCP chaplains can be of any faith, they do not have to be Christian.
This is really an attack on religion, on all faiths, and would remove any religious element from school chaplaincy. If schools have to advertise directly to engage chaplains, then of course they could not preference applicants of any faith, as that would probably fall foul of the Equal Opportunity Act as discrimination.
At present a school council can “employ any person to enable the council to do anything it is authorised to do” by the Act. Ms Patten’s amendment would mean, “a school council must not employ or engage a person to employ or engage another person to perform duties … at a school.” So school councils would be prohibited from engaging another person or body, such as an accredited school chaplaincy provider, to engage a chaplain for the school.
This Bill is not about allowing schools to engage non-religious people or people of other religions than Christian as chaplains. They can already do this. This is about preventing schools being allowed to access the NSCP through accredited chaplaincy providers.
This is discriminatory. Why should school councils not be allowed to engage a chaplain through an NSCP provider? Why shouldn’t schools be free to decide how to engage a chaplain? Why shouldn’t a school be free to choose to seek a chaplain with a religious background if that fits the culture and needs of the school?
And Ms Patten’s Bill discriminates against all religious faiths. Contrary to her expressed concern for people of Muslim, Hindu or Jewish faith, her Bill would mean that schools could not directly advertise for a Muslim, a Hindu or a Jewish person as a chaplain any more than they could for a Christian. The Bill would effectively prohibit schools engaging religious chaplains.
In her second reading speech, Ms Patten reveals what her idea of chaplains is: “The Department of Education and Training runs the school chaplaincy program in Victoria, which pays for youth workers in public schools. These people have the slightly misleading title of chaplain.”
The very definition of the word “chaplain” is a religious adviser/mentor/counsellor. Ms Patten seems to be attempting to ensure only a secular welfare officer can be engaged as a chaplain.
This is ignoring the spiritual dimension of the existential distress of so many young people today. That’s what chaplains are supposed to be about. The present covid19 crisis highlights the need for such support.
Ms Patten’s Bill is not about preventing discrimination against people of other faiths than Christian. Her Bill would remove all religions from government schools.
She needs to answer the question: “Why shouldn’t school communities through their school councils be free to choose a chaplain, of any religion or none, who fits the needs and culture of the school?”