Religiously Defending the Right to Remain Secular

This column is about lawlessness, and what your government is doing in your name. Or, more accurately, how it’s spending your money while dodging the oversight of Parliament in direct contravention of the law.

It is about the High Court challenge to the National School Chaplaincy Program and the reason why – whatever you think of school chaplains, love or hate ’em – you should be hoping the challenge succeeds. Any Australian who cares about the primacy of the law over the electoral fortunes of the political party in power should.

On the surface, Ron Williams v Commonwealth of Australia is about Williams, a father of six who wants his children to attend a secular school. By secular he means a school that is neutral when it comes to religion – a school that teaches kids about religions but doesn’t promote belief over non-belief or the belief system of one faith over another.

So Williams sent his brood to the local state school, assuming it would fit the bill. It didn’t. Instead, his children were asked for gold coins to take for Scripture Union on crazy hair day or made to attend assemblies where the chaplain presided and a rap song was played extolling the virtues of chaplains over teachers as adults kids could trust.

Williams’s desire is simple – to pull the plug on the program that, through “chaplaincy service providers” such as Scripture Union (“Christ’s ambassadors on the front line of ministry”) and Access Ministries (“transform[ing] this nation for God”), is feverishly trying to spend the $437 million of Commonwealth funds to put a chaplain in all the nation’s schools.

But like all cases heard by the High Court, this one is primarily about legal principles of governance. Such as whether our government is allocating our money in a fair, honest and transparent way, and in accordance with the constitution.

Williams says it isn’t. He asserts that the Howard, Rudd and Gillard governments have waved aside proper procedure to deliver wads of cash to a persistent and feared constituency. Legislate for school chaplains? Why risk parliamentary scrutiny and possible rejection? Instead, we’ll just slide the money into the yearly Appropriations Act under some innocuous item in the education budget.

Absolute power’s nice when you can get it but we live in a society governed by laws. The kind of place where a little guy such as Williams – with the help of generous advocates and micro-donations from well-wishers – can have his day in court to say “no way”.

No way should buckets of taxpayer money be doled out without Parliament having a say about the matter. No way should allocations be made in ways that violate the constitution – in particular, the bit that says the government can’t insist an Australian be a person of faith, or belong to a particular faith, to get a job. This is something that the government’s own guidelines and practices make clear is necessary for chaplains.

The laws Williams is fighting to have enforced – government by and for the people, the religious neutrality of the state – go to the heart of what I love about this country. Let’s hope for all our sakes he wins.

Publication history

Religiously Defending the Right to Remain Secular  Sunday Sun-Herald