The Australian High Court has handed down its ruling about the legitimacy of the national Chaplaincy program. The case was brought by a Toowoomba parent, Ron Williams, who objected to the Chaplaincy program on two grounds - Commonwealth funding and the impact on religious freedom.
The High Court ruled that the Chaplaincy program is legal - but the current funding arrangement by the Commonwealth is "illegal" under the Constitution.
Mr Williams argued that, since the constitution says the Commonwealth cannot apply any 'religious test" for officers of the Commonwealth, the chaplaincy program was illegal, since chaplains were 'religious'.
The High Court rejected his claim, ruling unanimously that the Chaplains are NOT employees of the Commonwealth - rather, they are employed (in Queensland) by Scripture Union Queensland. So at least this part of the ruling was good news!
On the funding issue, the High Court ruled that, since there was no legislation establishing the Chaplaincy program, then the Commonwealth acted outside its power in funding it. The Commonwealth had argued the payments were supported by the executive power given by Section 61 of the constitution, which says the executive power "extends to the execution and maintenance of this constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth".
The majority of the court ruled that Section 61 did not empower the Commonwealth to enter into the funding agreement for chaplaincy. [Age, SMH, Aust 20/6/2012] This ruling could have wide-ranging implications for Commonwealth funding of a range of programs - including roads! The federal government is reviewing the decision.
Scripture Union Queensland CEO Peter James noted, "The Court left open the option for the Government to continue funding either under new legislation or a grant of funds to the states and territories".
The government says they are committed to continuing the chaplaincy program. Earlier this year the government changed the scheme to include student welfare workers (announced Sept 2011, commenced Jan 2012). They also expanded the scheme to provide for an additional 1,000 schools (making a total of 3,555), with funding budgeted to the end of 2014. The additional 1,000 schools were announced by the Education Minister on May 24, 2012. Mr Garrett said that 65% of the schools asked for a Chaplain whilst 35% asked for a student welfare worker.