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Ron Williams 'clobbers' school chaplains program

Queensland dad Ron Williams rates his second High Court win as a "six-nil decision" against federal funding of the school chaplaincy program.

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If you are unhappy with an aspect of your child's public schooling, you can raise it with the teacher, or complain to the principal. If still not satisfied, you can go to your state education department. When Queensland father Ron Williams had exhausted all those avenues for his concerns about the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program, he took the ultimate step: he challenged the program's constitutional validity in the High Court of Australia.

His campaign was largely crowd-funded by often similarly disgruntled parents and kick-started with a seeding grant from the Humanist Society of Queensland, with logistical support from extremely articulate members of the Australian Secular Lobby. All this gave Williams a certain folk hero status.

In 2012, the court agreed with Williams that the program was unconstitutional. The Federal Parliament passed "quick fix" legislation that it hoped would legitimise not just the chaplaincy program but the 400-odd other Commonwealth-funded activities, accounting for up to 10 per cent of federal government spending, that were similarly invalidated by the decision.

Folk hero status: Ron Williams, who succeeded in his case in the High Court challenging the national school chaplaincy program.

Folk hero status: Ron Williams, who succeeded in his case in the High Court challenging the national school chaplaincy program. Photo: Andrew Meares

So back to the High Court. On Thursday, the judges ruled, 6-0, that the Commonwealth's legal Band-Aid had not worked: the spending on the chaplaincy program was as illegal as ever.

The timing is particularly injurious, because funding for the chaplaincy program was due to expire at the end of 2014 and the National Commission of Audit had recommended its discontinuation.

Treasurer Joe Hockey's federal budget boldly announced the program's continuation with another $245 million, bringing the total spent on the program since its 2006 introduction by the Howard government to more than $500 million.  

As well as extending the program's life, the budget announcement removed the option, introduced by the Gillard government, for schools to choose a non-religious "welfare worker". From 2015, the program, which operates mainly in public schools, would provide only religious chaplains. 

The cabinet (whose members, more than any other in modern times, were educated at religious schools) were unmoved by traditions of secular public schooling. Instead, the change was consistent with other moves to Christianise public schools, such as the appointment of a two-person curriculum review, one of whose members had declared public school curricula to be too secular and in need of greater "Judeo-Christian" content.

As far as the court case was concerned, the move to exclusively religious chaplains was neither here nor there. The High Court had already declined, in the 2012 version, to hear any arguments as to whether the program's religious identity posed any constitutional problem. The constitutional question was all about the Commonwealth's spending powers.

That was not the primary motivation for many of Williams' supporters, including, presumably, the Australian Secular Lobby. Williams explained to journalists, as he returned to the High Court in May this year: "I have a strong objection to the federal government funding the chaplaincy program and that's what this case is about. There is no place in public schools for any form of missionaries or evangelists or anything that isn't secular."

From the immediate social media reaction, that has been a common concern, with worries about whether the Commonwealth channels its funds through the states or exposes spending to parliamentary scrutiny running a distant second.

Sometimes, the most obvious route is not the one that gets you to your destination – and that can particularly be the case when dealing with what constitutional historian Helen Irving has called Australia's "powerful but mysterious" constitution.

One day, we might rethink it, in the process giving substance to the vision of our public education system's founders that schools should be "free, compulsory and secular". 

Academic Marion Maddox is author of Taking God to School: The End of Australia's Egalitarian Education?