Most conversation around Victorian politics has been about the draconian restrictions on freedom during the second lockdown. But under the radar, a Bill that could threaten school chaplains has made it to the Upper House. And according to Terri Kelleher, National President of the Australian Family Association, it’s not just Christians who should be worried. “It’s an attack on all religions,” she said.
The Bill was written by Fiona Patten of the Reason Party, formerly known as the Sex Party. When introducing the Bill, she said: “You mightn’t realise it but to get a job in many public schools across Victoria, you have to be a Christian.”
Talking to Neil Johnson on Vision’s 20Twenty, Kelleher explained that Patten was referring to the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP), a scheme which provides accreditation for chaplains, of which many members are in fact Christian. But nonetheless, Patten’s claim isn’t actually true. “The Victorian government, on its website, does direct Victorian public schools to where they can directly engage their own chaplains,” Kelleher said.
Patten’s Bill will prohibit schools from accessing the NSCP. “It puts a lot of the onus on the schools. They have to then go through the whole employment process. They also then could not advertise for anyone of any particular faith, or even anyone of any faith.”
Patten claims to be concerned about providing for Muslims, Jews, and atheists, but again, Kelleher points out that the National School Chaplaincy Program already allows schools to employ chaplains of their chosen faith. “Except for atheists, she’s not concerned at all, because what her bill is going to do is to mean that you’re not going to be able to seek a chaplain with any religious affiliation.”
With the added effort of screening and interviewing candidates, there’s a good chance schools would stop employing chaplains altogether, especially since the bill also cuts them off from their previous source of funding. “All they can use is what’s called a student resources package,” Kelleher explained, “and I’m sure there are many calls on that.”
Another aspect of Patten’s bill is redefining chaplains as “student welfare officers”. While Kelleher agrees that student welfare is a chaplain’s primary concern, she says that definition ignores the role’s spiritual dimension. “If you’re going to take that out of the process of employing a chaplain, then you’ve removed religion from the school. And I’m trying to say that she’s against any religion, not just Christians. But she uses the Christian religion as a pretext.”
“At present, Victorian government schools can directly engage chaplains. And if they want just a student welfare officer, they don’t want anyone with any religious affiliation or background, they can do that. So why does she have to prohibit schools that wish to from going through the National Chaplaincy Program, which recognises chaplains for what they actually are?”
Though it’s understood that chaplains aren’t allowed to proselytise in schools, they’re uniquely equipped to deal with the existential questions young people are dealing with. “And especially in this time of COVID anxiety for children, this is all about the meaning of life and not feeling so terribly anxious. Even if it’s not direct, you can’t directly teach religion, but the chaplain brings it with him or her.”
Kelleher says Fiona Patten is using Christianity as a soft target, to gain attention for a Bill that would remove any religion from schools in Victoria. “Schools should be free to choose a chaplain that fits the needs and culture of the school. And that will reduce that choice. They won’t have a choice.”
Visit the Australian Family Association’s website at family.org.au and subscribe to their email ‘Action Alerts’ to find out how you can make sure this bill doesn’t pass the Upper House.
Tune into 20Twenty and join the conversation with Neil Johnson, weekdays on Vision Christian Radio. Click here for your local times.
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