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The government should remain neutral on religion

By Simon Wright - posted Friday, 27 July 2007

On June 27 Prime Minister John Howard announced the first round of funding for the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) with funding for 1,392 of the 1,503 applications received. This is about 15 per cent of Australian schools. At the same time the PM increased funding by $25 million to a total of $115 million over three years.

The underlying message of the Prime Minister’s announcement and the Education Minister’s earlier press release on May 30 is that the popularity of the program should somehow silence the critics. Of course, what neither of them point out is that the 85 per cent of schools who may be uneasy with the program, and have not, to-date, applied for funding, will get nothing.

John Howard announced the NSCP in October 2006. It allocated $90 million of Commonwealth funding over three years for school chaplains to give - in the Prime Minister’s words - “pastoral care and spiritual guidance” to school students and staff.


The program directly funds religion and undermines what remains of the separation of church and state in Australia. It is against the spirit of section 116 of the Australian Constitution that states:

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.

The program further requires the executive branch of the Government to examine and judge religious matters, as it is the minister (and prime minister) who has final say over who is funded.

The program is contrary to the Commonwealth's obligations under international human rights instruments to which it is a signatory. The Commonwealth discriminates against the non-religious students and staff because the NSCP is not open to them. One cannot employ non-religious counsellors or other welfare workers.

The program is one of the Prime Minister’s hobby horses and does not rest on any solid policy foundations. State, Territory and Australian Government Ministers of Education, in 1999, agreed to the Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-first Century that contains the current statement of goals for education in Australia. This statement does not mention or identify the issue of “spiritual guidance” of students as an educational priority. Likewise, the Australian Government’s reform agenda for schools for the next four years says nothing of spiritual guidance of students.

Liberal party policy has not previously promoted spirituality and religion and doing so contradicts many of their other policy statements. Liberal Way, the Federal Platform of the Liberal Party of Australia, does not mention spirituality or its promotion. Indeed, it speaks of the “separation and distribution of powers as the best protection for the democratic process”, “the Government keeping to its core business” and “giving all citizens equal rights under the law”.


The Nine Values for Australian Schooling, endorsed by the Australian Government and the basis for the National Framework for Values Education in Australian Schools, likewise does not mention spirituality or religion.

So if it is not government, departmental or Liberal party policy, where did the NSCP come from? The answer lies in the Prime Minister’s and other key cabinet members’ social attitudes and religiosity.

John Howard professes to be a committed Christian and has made many decisions which directly and indirectly promote Christianity and the wealth, power and influence of the Christian Churches. As commentator Max Wallace noted these decisions “further entrench the Churches in various aspects of society as a way to counterbalance their falling church attendances”.

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About the Author

Simon Wright has an honours philosophy degree from ANU and UNSW. He worked in the Federal Department of Industrial Relations before founding several businesses. His main areas of concern and interest are government transparency and the impact of philosophical issues and concerns on the activities of government. He is the author of

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