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The school chaplaincy debate

Greens Senator Larissa Waters says blocking secular workers from the chaplaincy program is 'disgusting' but Nationals MP Andrew Broad welcomes the move.

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The Abbott government is pushing ahead with a religious-only school chaplaincy scheme following a cabinet debate over whether secular welfare workers should be included in the program.

The government was forced to redesign the $244 million scheme after the High Court ruled it invalid in June for the second time in two years. The court found the Commonwealth had over-reached its funding powers by providing direct payments to chaplain providers.

In a bid to prevent another High Court challenge, the federal government will provide funding to state and territory governments to administer the scheme. This new arrangement strengthens the hand of the states and could see some demand an option for secular welfare workers or tougher qualification standards.

Tony Abbott argued in cabinet that the government should stand by his policy.

Tony Abbott argued in cabinet that the government should stand by his policy. Photo: Andrew Meares

In a cabinet meeting on Monday, Abbott government ministers explored options to extend the scheme to include funding for secular welfare workers. This would have reversed the government's existing policy that funding should be restricted to religious chaplains.   During the cabinet discussion, Mr Abbott argued that the government should stand by its existing policy. Mr Abbott argued the scheme's original intent was supporting pastoral care in schools and that should remain its focus. The chaplaincy scheme was also raised in the Coalition party room on Tuesday, where at least two government members argued the scheme should be broadened to include funding for secular workers.

The chaplaincy scheme was introduced by the Howard government in 2006. Labor expanded the scheme to include funding for secular welfare workers in 2011 – an option the government scrapped in this year's budget.

Both challenges in the High Court were brought forward by Toowoomba father Ron Williams, a secularist opposed to public funding for religious workers in public schools.

The government rushed forward its announcement about the new scheme on Wednesday afternoon after Fairfax Media revealed the story online. The government had hoped to avoid a distracting debate on chaplains during the introduction of its sweeping higher education changes into Parliament on Thursday.

Under the new scheme, chaplains can be of any faith, cannot proselytise and must meet minimum qualification standards.

Participating schools will be eligible to receive up to $20,000 a year in financial assistance, with schools in remote areas eligible for $24,000.

"The government believes that school chaplains make a valuable contribution to the wellbeing of students and school communities," Parliamentary Secretary Scott Ryan said.

"I encourage state and territory governments to accept the invitation of the Commonwealth to participate in the National School Chaplaincy Program and give all schools the chance to apply for funding for a school chaplain."

Labor school education spokeswoman Kate Ellis said: "It is an unjustifiable disgrace that hundreds of schools will lose valued, hardworking and qualified counsellors as a result of the Abbott government's ideology being rammed down the throat of school students across Australia.

"Determining who is best placed to support the needs of local students should be left to principals and school communities – not to Christopher Pyne and George Brandis."

Australian Education Union president Angelo Gavrielatos said the school chaplaincy scheme would "undermine the secular traditions of public education". The $244 million funding over four years should be spent on more urgent needs, such as support for children with disabilities, he said. 

A spokesperson for the National School Chaplaincy Association welcomed the government's decision.

"Chaplaincy makes a positive difference in the lives of students and is widely considered the best model of holistic care and welfare, as it provides emotional, social and spiritual support," the spokesperson said.

"While we acknowledge the public opinions of some who are opposed to chaplaincy, much of this is based on misinformation. Chaplains are non-judgmental, non-coercive and support all students regardless of the student's issues or worldview."

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