Schools will have to pay out of their own budgets to replace banned religious chaplains with secular youth workers next year, the ACT government has confirmed.
The territory's withdrawal from the Commonwealth-funded chaplaincy program has left Canberra chaplains in limbo and sparked an eleventh-hour campaign by religious groups to save the role in public schools.
But ACT Education Minister Yvette Berry has doubled down on the incoming chaplain ban, saying the existing role conflicts with the secular operation of public schools required under the ACT's own Education Act.
The national program lets schools opt in for federal grants of about $20,000 a year for a chaplain, usually offering pastoral care two days a week, with extra hours often funded by the community.
While they must already be qualified youth workers, the ACT government has been at odds with the Coalition since it brought in controversial changes requiring that chaplains also be affiliated with a religious organisation.
In February, Ms Berry withdrew public schools from the $3.9 million funding deal, promising their existing chaplains would instead be offered the same 10 hours a week of work in new secular roles paid for by the ACT
This week, her office told The Canberra Times no new money would be set aside to replace the close to $2 million that had been earmarked until 2022 for the 22 public schools already taking part. Schools and the education directorate would "meet the modest cost impact ... from within their existing budget".
Now, just weeks out from the end of the school year, chaplains say they are yet to see any detail of the new roles on offer and warn their schools will be left worse off, with more pressure on budgets and less hours of pastoral care all up.
A spokeswoman for the minister said schools allocated resources according to community need. It is understood small schools in serious budget need will be helped by the directorate with the change.
The ACT is the first jurisdiction to withdraw from the scheme. Ms Berry said she made the decision, which does not affect non-government schools in the ACT, after her push for funding to be extended once again to secular workers was rejected.
Schools were not consulted prior but the ban has been welcomed by the public teachers' union.
The ACT's peak parent's group also backed it at the time, noting a religious chaplain of one particular faith could alienate those of others.
But spokeswoman Janelle Kennard said they had expected the roles would be replaced "without affecting school budgets".
"We're extremely disappointed that's not the case," she said. "Those roles are critically needed in schools."
While, comparatively, the ACT funds its schools more than other jurisdictions, on the ground concerns have been raised they may have to reduce the hours of existing youth or social workers to keep their chaplains on.
The government has flagged more social workers for schools are on the horizon but has yet to commit any money, after a recent ACT inquiry into school violence and bullying called for more psychologists and welfare officers on campuses.
School Chaplaincy ACT, a Christian organisation that employs all but one of the ACT's school chaplains, said the ban was "baffling" in light of the inquiry's recommendations, and similar national reports.
"This was a free resource, people who were already trained to deal with bullying," chief executive Peter James said.
If I tried to convert anyone, I'd get fired.Mandy Gray, chaplain
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan has also lashed the ban as an example of the ACT putting "ideology above student welfare" and called on the government to explain why ACT schools will no longer have access to the fund.
But Ms Berry's office noted that the Coalition did not consult with schools when it ruled chaplains must have religious ties - a change which squeezed many secular workers out of schools, including 14 in the ACT.
While the current rules forbid chaplains from preaching their beliefs or conducting religious education, they are allowed to answer questions "in good faith" and offer spiritual support with parental permission.
Chaplains do not have to be Christian but those employed by School Chaplaincy ACT are required to prove they can support a school community "within a Christian framework", build relationships with churches and community groups and demonstrate a living relationship with Christ.
Their duties include encouraging students to "engage in meaningful dialogue regarding spirituality, religion, values and ethics with an attitude of respectful inquiry" and running voluntary groups for students to explore or develop their spirituality.
Canberra chaplain and former social worker Mandy Gray said that was just one part of the job she loved, which saw her run everything from free breakfast clubs to mental health ambassador training as well as offering one-on-one support to students and staff.
"I have atheists and kids of [other] faiths who come in to chat and debate, but I always have to get parental permission to talk religion," she said.
"And if I tried to convert anyone, I'd get fired."
The government has already ruled out allowing chaplains to continue under community funding arrangements - which support those like Ms Gray to work up to three days extra a week - but they are yet to show them a position description of the new secular roles on offer. It's understood a draft was recently put to School Chaplaincy ACT.
"I want to stay but we're still in the dark and principals need to figure out their budget for next year," Ms Gray said.
"I need to figure out what I'm going to do with my career."
Local artist Colin White, who has Anglican and Pentecostal roots and does charity work with the Missionheart church in Canberra, said he was also unsure of his future.
"For a lot of people chaplains conjure up memories of the religious education they had in schools but it's not really about that," he said.
"We talk about school and problems going on, bullying, whatever it might be. We help out. Last year I managed to help a refugee family find housing."
This week, Ms Berry said the new roles will come under the ACT public service code of conduct and be monitored, like other school staff, by the usual community oversight.
"I hope [chaplains] will stay on," she said.
These people are often really well loved by their schools...we just don't think they should have to be religious.Janelle Kennard, ACT Council of Parents and Citizens Associations
Her office told The Canberra Times the new role would be classified as a school assistant, which according to the award, can be paid between $21 and $36 an hour.
Mr James stressed that while chaplains did not conduct religious education, they still performed a religious service.
"Why is faith not one of the things kids are allowed to explore at school?" he said.
"A chaplain's not just a middle-aged man in a dog collar either. And they're not a replacement for a school psychologist but sometimes you just need a coffee with a friend who will listen. Chaplains are that equivalent, for staff as well as students, even just to have a cry to, because they're still bound by mandatory reporting and things...but they sit outside the rest of the hierarchy."
The day the ban was announced, he said one school chaplain was informing staff a teacher at their school had died.
"The school wanted the chaplain to deliver that news and support everyone," he said.
While some students said they didn't approach their chaplains, many credited the workers with getting them through school.
Among them is Jessica Gantenbein who said Ms Gray had helped her overcome anxiety attacks while she was studying Year 12 last year.
"I'd come in to chat about my day, it was kind of just like a friendship, we didn't talk about religion at all."
Ms Berry said feedback on the ban had been overwhelmingly positive but at the parents' council Ms Kennard said reaction had been mixed. While families were broadly supportive, many were sad to lose their chaplain.
"These people are often really well loved members of the school community and we do need more youth workers and support people in schools," she said. "We just don't think they should have to be religious."
Federal senator for the ACT Zed Seseljahas blasted the chaplain ban in the opinion pages of The Canberra Times, stressing the national program was created to fill a "significant gap" in support services for students.
A Save Our Chaplains campaign, funded by School Chaplaincy ACT, launched this week amid a warning from the Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn against pushing God out of schools.
A landmark legal challenge arguing the national chaplaincy program was discriminatory was settled earlier this year, with the Victorian government conceding workers could be of "any or no faith".
At the time, it was speculated the agreement could force Victorian religious groups and providers to endorse secular workers for funding as chaplains but Mr Tehan's office did not answer questions on the implications of the case.