Submission to Inquiry into the Status of the Human Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief

The Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade is currently holding an inquiry into ‘religious freedom’, although sadly it is disproportionately focused on promoting the freedom to, rather than freedom from, religious belief. My submission below attempts to redress this imbalance. For more details on the inquiry, click here.

 

Committee Secretary

Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade

PO Box 6021

Parliament House

Canberra ACT 2066

religionorbelief@aph.gov.au

 

Dear Committee Secretary

 

Inquiry into the Status of the Human Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief

 

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a submission to the above-named inquiry.

 

In this submission, I will be focusing on Term of Reference 4, namely:

 

“Australian efforts, including those of Federal, State and Territory governments and non-government organisations, to protect and promote the freedom of religion or belief in Australia and around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific region.”

 

In my view, Australian Governments, of all levels, all-too-often promote the freedom of religion – and in particular, the freedom of christian beliefs – at the expense of the equally-important freedom from religion.

 

The imposition of christianity on others, including on those who are atheist or have no religious belief, as well as its negative consequences for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) Australians (who may or may not be christian themselves), can be observed in multiple ways.

 

Symbolically, there is a range of ways in which christianity is treated preferentially in Australian law which I believe is inappropriate in a country which is, or at least should be, secular (and by that I mean a nation that does not favour, or disfavour, any particular belief or lack of belief).

 

This includes having a formal head of state (the King or Queen of England) who is also, as a function of this role, the symbolic head of a christian denomination (the Anglican church), as well as the fact that each Commonwealth parliamentary sitting day begins with the recitation of a christian statement (the lord’s prayer).

 

More substantively, there are a number of ways in which the principle of separation of church and state – which should operate to protect both secular government, and the free exercise of religion, including freedom from religion – has been fundamentally breached by Federal, and State and Territory, Governments. This is especially apparent in education, and particularly in relation to public schools.

 

First, the inclusion of Special Religious Instruction (SRI) or Special Religious Education (SRE) in the school timetable is completely inappropriate because religious indoctrination, which is primarily christian indoctrination, should have no place in public classrooms.

 

On a practical level, SRI/SRE is also flawed for several reasons, including that it regularly operates as an ‘opt-out’ system rather than ‘opt-in’, and also because the ‘choice’ in many state schools is limited to either attending a lesson of christian indoctrination, or doing nothing (there can be few better examples of wasting time than mandating some students do not learn anything at all because other students are learning about their particular god or gods, something that should instead be taking place in the home or their respective place of worship).

 

SRI/SRE also frequently has a detrimental impact on LGBTI students. This is because it is disproportionately conducted by evangelical christians who, as numerous publicly-reported examples demonstrate, are more likely to express anti-LGBTI views, causing harm to students who are not cisgender and/or heterosexual.

 

As recently noted by crikey[i]:“While religious groups complain about the teaching of sex education issues, the [NSW Government] review found that religious instruction teachers were “overstepping the mark” in addressing issues of sexuality and explicitly expressing homophobic views.”

 

A second example of the fundamental breach of the separation of church and state in relation to government schools, which infringes upon the freedom from religion, can be found in the long-running, controversial National School Chaplaincy Program, which involves the (mis)use of public monies to pay public schools to hire people who – at least for the majority of the scheme’s existence – must be religious in order to be employed.

 

Despite guidelines that stipulate these religious (and in the vast majority of cases, christian) appointees must not ‘proselytise’ in the classroom or schoolyard, it is inevitable that many will – with evidence that they have repeatedly done so collected over many years[ii].

 

From my perspective there can be no proper policy justification for the allocation of literally hundreds of millions of Commonwealth, and therefore taxpayer, dollars on a program that preferentially employs people of a religious background (and excludes people who are not religious).

 

This breach is especially egregious because if public money is to be provided to promote student welfare, then that money should be directed towards employing the best qualified people to do so – trained school counsellors, who may or may not be religious (but whose religious beliefs, or lack thereof, are irrelevant to their ability to perform the role) – rather than ‘chaplains’ who must be of a religious background.

 

These two policies – SRI/SRE, and the National School Chaplaincy Program – are clear examples of the preferential treatment of religion, and primarily christianity, in contemporary Australia.

 

However, the most fundamental way in which the freedom from religion is infringed upon in Commonwealth, State and Territory policy is through the operation of ‘religious exceptions’ to anti-discrimination laws.

 

While appropriate recognition of freedom of religion would accord individuals and groups the right to hold beliefs, to celebrate those beliefs through religious ceremonies, as well as to appoint ministers of religion and other religious office-holders, these religious exceptions go far beyond what is necessary to achieve those aims.

 

Instead, they allow religious organisations to discriminate against employees, and in many cases against people accessing services, in an extraordinarily broad range of situations.

 

This includes discrimination in key areas of public life (including health and education), discrimination against people on the basis of irrelevant factors (for example, refusing to hire a qualified mathematics teacher on the basis of their sexual orientation), and discrimination in the use of public funds (in a number of circumstances, religious organisations are permitted to discriminate even where the service involved is part, even in large part, publicly-funded).

 

Of course, many religious organisations will argue that the ability to discriminate in each of these situations is necessary to ‘manifest beliefs in community with others’. However, such rights are not, and should not be, unfettered.

 

As observed by the Australian Human Rights Commission in their submission to this Inquiry:

 

“Legitimate limitations on the freedom to manifest a religion or belief in worship, observance or practice must be prescribed by law and necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”

 

Anti-discrimination laws, such as the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, exist to protect a variety of groups against harm – effectively protecting their fundamental rights and freedoms – and they should not be undermined by the granting of special rights to discriminate to religious organisations.

 

It should also be noted that these religious exceptions are disproportionately used to adversely treat lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people[iii], who may or may not be religious themselves, but who nevertheless do not deserve to be discriminated against as they go about their daily lives simply because of who they are or who they love.

 

Essentially, religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws deny too many LGBT Australians the right to be free from religion, and free from the negative consequences of homophobia, biphobia or transphobia that is based on, or claimed to be based on[iv], religious belief.

 

Perhaps the worst examples of these laws – and the clearest demonstration of how they inherently lead to human rights abuses against LGBT people (among others) – are the religious exceptions that allow religious schools to discriminate against students on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.

 

For example, section 38 of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 not only permits discrimination against LGBT [school] employees and contract workers (which is unacceptable in and of itself), sub-section (3) also states that:

 

“Nothing… renders it unlawful for a person to discriminate against another person on the ground of the other person’s sexual orientation, gender identity, marital or relationship status or pregnancy in connection with the provision of education or training by an educational institution that is conducted in accordance with the doctrines, tenets, beliefs or teachings of a particular religion or creed, if the first-mentioned person so discriminates in good faith in order to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion or creed.”

 

Basically, under the Sex Discrimination Act, religious schools are given free rein to mistreat lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, including by expelling or refusing to enrol these students (or refusing to enrol the children of rainbow families), teaching them that who they are is not okay, or in other ways treating them significantly worse than heterosexual and/or cisgender students.

 

The majority of states and territories have adopted similar provisions with NSW even going so far as allowing all non-government schools, including private schools that are not religious at all[v], to adversely treat LG and T students[vi].

 

It should be noted that the overwhelming majority of these religious schools are in receipt of Commonwealth, and State or Territory, funds, including from LGBT taxpayers – the notion that my taxes are being used by these organisations to actively discriminate against young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students is both heartbreaking, and infuriating.

 

But, even if absolutely no taxpayer funds were involved, allowing religious schools to discriminate in this way would still be a fundamental breach of the human rights of these students to be who they are – including their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, which are both inherent or essential attributes – and to not be unfairly discriminated against as a result.

 

This principle is reinforced if we substitute students of different racial or ethnic backgrounds for LGBT students. We would not legally allow schools, whether government, religious or otherwise independent, to discriminate against students on the basis of their race or ethnicity. So why should we permit any school, irrespective of its ownership, to discriminate against LGBT students for who they are?

 

In short, any student, in any school, could be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex – and they each have a fundamental right to education, free from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or intersex status.

 

Logically, the only way in which this can be guaranteed is for every school to provide a learning environment that treats all students – heterosexual, cisgender and LGBTI-alike – equally.

 

In my view, the best interests of children in this situation, who are at their most vulnerable and whose protection is the responsibility of governments of all levels, especially in education which sits squarely in the public sphere, must supersede the religious beliefs of parents, or the schools themselves.

 

To suggest otherwise is to argue that LGBTI students in religious schools are just collateral damage of the ‘right’ to freedom of religion of others, and that the adverse consequences they inevitably suffer – from mistreatment and exclusion, to bullying, mental health issues and even suicide – should simply be ignored.

 

Well, I will not ignore these consequences, and I submit that this Committee, and the Commonwealth Parliament, must not ignore them either.

 

Which means that, if the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade is genuinely interested in the issue of how ‘to protect and promote the freedom of religion or belief in Australia’, then it must also consider the issues of how to protect and promote the freedom from belief, and how to protect LGBTI people from the negative consequences of the religious beliefs of others.

 

This includes investigating why religious indoctrination continues to feature in the nation’s public school classrooms (in the form of Special Religious Instruction or Special Religious Education), as well as why hundreds of millions of Commonwealth dollars continue to be allocated to employing religious people in our schoolyards (through the National School Chaplaincy Program).

 

Above all, it means questioning why religious organisations should be granted special rights to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees, and people accessing services (through wide-ranging ‘religious exceptions’ to anti-discrimination laws), and why religious schools are legally permitted to mistreat LGBT students simply because of who they are.

 

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide a submission to this important inquiry. Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided should the Committee wish to clarify any of the above, or for further information.

 

Sincerely,

Alastair Lawrie

 

Simon Birmingham

Commonwealth Education Minister Simon Birmingham, who couldn’t find $2 million per year to continue Safe Schools, but provides $60 million+ per year to the National School Chaplaincy Program.

 

Footnotes:

[i] “Homophobic, anti-science and frightening” religious instruction teachers remain in NSW, crikey, 12 April 2017.

[ii] See Chaplains accused of pushing religion in schools, ABC News, 8 April 2011 and Brisbane school chaplain being investigated for proselytizing after claiming his mission is to disciple school children and their families, Courier Mail, 18 May 2014.

[iii] It is considered unlikely that religious exceptions under the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 would be employed against intersex people.

[iv] The inclusion of religious exceptions to anti-discrimination laws actually encourages individuals and organisations to claim that anti-LGBTI prejudice is based on religious belief because it is less likely to attract consequences (even if the anti-LGBTI prejudice in fact has nothing to do with religion whatsoever).

[v] See NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 sections 49ZO(3), and 38K(3).

[vi] Remembering that, in 2017, the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 still does not protect bisexual people against discrimination.

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Dear Joe Hockey, $245 million for School Chaplains? You Cannot be Serious

Just over a month ago I wrote to you arguing that, if you were serious about cutting Commonwealth expenditure, you must axe the National School Chaplaincy Program. (link: <https://alastairlawrie.net/2014/04/12/dear-joe-hockey-if-youre-serious-about-cutting-expenditure-you-must-axe-school-chaplains/ )

This program is a completely unjustifiable breach of the principle of the separation of church and state, supporting the appointment of people whose primary ‘qualification’ is their religion to positions in secular, government-run schools. It is also ineffective, with little or no evidence that employing chaplains benefits students overall (especially when compared with appointing properly-trained and qualified student welfare workers or counsellors).

Above all, with the National School Chaplaincy Program costing more than $50 million each and every year, this initiative is the epitome of waste. $50 million per year may not have seemed like a huge spend when it was first introduced (as Howard and Costello bathed in the rivers of cash flowing into the treasury coffers) but, in a post-GFC world, when the revenue stream has well and truly dried up, the largesse of this scheme is apparent.

Since I wrote to you, the final report of the National Commission of Audit has been released, and, much to my surprise, they recognised both the extravagance of, and lack of policy rationale for, this scheme, recommending that it be abolished. Even your hand-picked, right-wing Audit warriors thought funding school chaplains could not be justified.

So, when you rose to your feet to deliver the Budget on Tuesday night, the pressure was on you: were you in fact serious about cutting expenditure, including abolishing wasteful and ineffective programs irrespective of which side of politics had introduced them, or did balancing the Budget not matter as much as supporting narrow, ideological interests?

Alas, in the Budget papers, we the Australian public quickly discovered that, despite all the talk of ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘repairing the Budget’, you nevertheless had chosen to provide $245 million to the National School Chaplaincy Program, to continue its operation from 1 January 2015 to the end of 2018.

That decision in and of itself was terrible, but it is made worse, by several orders of magnitude, when it is contrasted with some of the other decisions contained in the Budget, including:

  • The introduction of a $7 co-payment for visiting a doctor, as well as a $5 increase in the cost of prescriptions through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme;
  • A $7.9 billion cut in the foreign aid budget over the next 5 years;
  • A $500 million cut to expenditure on indigenous programs over the next 5 years (this under the ‘Prime Minister for Indigenous affairs’);
  • A rise in the pension age from 67 to 70 (phased in to 2035), as well as a reduction in future pension increases;
  • An increase in university fees, with loans to be charged at much higher interest rates and the repayment threshold significantly lowered; and
  • The introduction of a 6-month wait for access to unemployment benefits for people under 30 (and even then, payment at a reduced rate).

That list sounds like a ‘Tea Party’ inspired re-imagining of The New Colossus: “Give me your tired, your (global) poor, your sick, your Aboriginal, your elderly, your young, your students and your unemployed, and we will make them pay.” When you spoke of ‘sharing the burden’, it seems like you almost went out of your way to ensure that the burden was shared, disproportionately, by the most vulnerable.

In that context, it looks more than bizarre that one of the main groups who do not have to experience any Budget pain are school chaplains. The decision to give them almost a quarter of a billion dollars doesn’t even make sense when looked at exclusively in the context of the Education Budget.

The $245 million provided to the National School Chaplaincy Program is the single biggest spending initiative in the budget for schools, which implies that it is the Abbott Government’s biggest school-related priority for its first year in office. This funding also stands in marked contrast to the decision not to provide any additional funding for students with disabilities, despite that being a major pre-election commitment.

Do you really think that subsidising chaplains is more important than funding students with disabilities, or indeed funding anything else to do with schools?

The worst part is that the decision to refund the School Chaplaincy program is not even the worst part about this announcement.

In Tuesday night’s media release (“Keeping our Commitments: Funding a National School Chaplaincy Program”, issued by Senator the Hon Scott Ryan, the Parliamentary for Education) the Government stated that “[t]he renewed programme will be returned to its original intent; to provide funding for school chaplains.”

As made clear, in supporting documentation and subsequent media coverage, this means that, from 1 January next year, only religious appointees, from ‘recognised denominations’, need apply.

This is a return to the Howard Government designed scheme from 2007, and abolishes the only redeeming feature of the entire program – which was the 2012 amendment, made by then Education Ministers the Hon Peter Garrett MP, to allow schools the choice to employ secular student welfare workers rather than chaplains.

In doing away with qualified student welfare workers, you have also removed the only fig-leaf of credibility which (partially) covered up the nakedly-ideological, and evidence-free, nature of the overall scheme.

It is impossible for you, and the Commonwealth Government in general, to claim that the National School Chaplaincy Program is genuinely about improving the welfare of students, when you are explicitly denying schools the opportunity to employ the best people for the job.

In the absence of any student welfare-based rationale, everyone can now see that the decision to provide new funding to the National School Chaplaincy Program is, at its core, a joke. The changes to the scheme’s rules, which mean that all 2,900 people employed under the scheme must be religious appointees, and cannot be secular student welfare workers, make it a bad joke at that.

But maybe we only see it as a bad joke because the joke is on us. After all, we the taxpayers are the ones footing the $245 million bill to allow chaplains and other religious office-holders inappropriate access to the schoolyard, and the classroom.

There are, of course, others who are laughing at our expense: the religious organisations who have their ‘outreach’ work to young impressionable minds publicly-subsidised; the religious fundamentalists in the Liberal-National Government (and, it must be said, some in the ALP Opposition) who believe it is the role of Government to ensure Australia is a ‘Christian nation’; and the major churches who want to break down, once and for all, the already fragile separation of church and state in this country.

The group laughing hardest, though, must be the Australian Christian Lobby, because this is your, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s, extravagant, quarter of a billion dollar gift to them. It must gladden your heart that, in his post-Budget media release (where it should be acknowledged he at least made the effort to criticise the overall impact of Budget cuts on the poor and disadvantaged) ACL Managing Director Lyle Shelton still found time to be thankful for the Chaplaincy Program. As an aside: Lyle, if you are genuinely concerned about cuts to foreign aid, maybe you should by lobbying for that $245 million to go overseas instead.

So, when you stood up on Tuesday night and said that ‘we are a nation of lifters, not leaners’, it was, like so much of what you said, just empty rhetoric. Because, as you have so amply demonstrated through this single, fundamentally wasteful decision, groups like the Australian Christian Lobby can always lean on you.

Of course, funding the National School Chaplaincy Program for another four years, and even changing its rules, probably wasn’t the worst decision contained in the Federal Budget. It definitely isn’t the decision that will cause the most harm to struggling individuals, both here and overseas (the list of other changes outlined above will likely all have far more deleterious consequences than simply putting 2,900 religious appointees in schools).

But the decision to award $245 million to this scheme reveals, probably more than any other choice made by you and the other members of the Expenditure Review Committee, just how twisted the Budget priorities of this Government really are. In amongst the carnage of savage cuts to health, to education, to the pension and to foreign aid, you and your colleagues nevertheless found room in your hearts, and our wallets, to fund the National School Chaplaincy Program.

The role of the nation’s Treasurer is a serious one, bringing with it solemn responsibilities. You are supposed to tax wisely, spend fairly, look after the most vulnerable and invest for our collective future. In your first Budget, you instead chose to hurt some of those who are the most disadvantaged, while still helping your – ideological and political – friends. I am sorry to say, Mr Hockey, but on May 13, you failed to live up to the serious responsibilities of Treasurer.

Treasurer Joe Hockey, not serious about cutting wasteful programs like school chaplains. Is serious about granting the wishes of groups like the ACL. (image source: news.com.au)

Treasurer Joe Hockey, not serious about cutting wasteful programs like school chaplains. Is serious about granting the wishes of groups like the ACL (image source: news.com.au).

Dear Joe Hockey, If you’re serious about cutting expenditure, you must axe school chaplains

As promised during the 2013 federal election campaign, one of the first actions of the Tony Abbott-led Liberal-National Government was to establish a National Commission of Audit, to review all Commonwealth expenditure in an effort to reduce spending and ultimately deliver a Budget surplus.

Indeed, the Terms of Reference for the Commission of Audit described it as a “full-scale review of the activities of the Commonwealth government to:

-ensure taxpayers are receiving value-for-money from each dollar spent;

-eliminate wasteful spending; …

-identify areas or programs where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate…” [among other objectives].

The Commission’s first report was delivered to the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, in mid-February, and the second was handed over at the end of March. The contents of both reports were, quite cynically, kept from the public ahead of the Western Australian half-Senate election on 5 April (because you wouldn’t want an electorate to actually be informed about impending spending cuts before they vote), although, with only one month left until the Federal Budget is handed down it’s highly likely they will be released in the next week or two.

It is expected that the Commission will recommended that the axe fall on (or at least make significant cuts to) a wide range of different programs, with apparently ‘authorised’ leaks focusing on things like the aged pension, Medicare (through a $6 co-payment) and other vital health, education and welfare services.

However, there is one program that, I believe, meets all of the above criteria and thoroughly deserves to be cut as part of any serious expenditure review: the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program. It is almost impossible to argue that putting ministers of religion into government schools could ever be value-for-money, when compared with almost any other government expense. As well as being enormously wasteful spending, it would also seem to be the definition of a program where Commonwealth involvement is inappropriate.

And yet, given the highly political nature of the Commission of Audit, I suspect it is unlikely the National School Chaplaincy Program is under any real threat. Even if the Commission were to recommend its abolition, it is hard to believe that Joe Hockey would actually follow through on any such advice when he rises to the dispatch box on the night of Tuesday 13 May.

More’s the pity. The National School Chaplaincy Program is amongst the worst examples of public policy over the past decade (and there have been some absolute shockers in that time). It was introduced by John Howard in the dying days of his government (2007), as he realised his grip on power was loosening with age – basically, it was a sop to ultra-conservatives and religious fundamentalists (both of which can be found in the form of the Australian Christian Lobby) to entice them to remain aboard his sinking electoral ship.

Alas, in a demonstration that poor policy, and religious pork-barrelling, can be bipartisan, the incoming Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, maintained the National Schools Chaplaincy Program throughout his first stint in the Lodge. When it came time to review the first three years of its operation, frustratingly he and his then Deputy, Education Minister Julia Gillard, chose to continue, rather than close, the program.

As Prime Minister in the lead-up to the 2010 poll, Gillard then announced a $222 million extension of the program til the end of this year (2014). This money was also provided to allow for expansion of the scheme’s coverage, from 2,700 schools up to 3,550 schools.

The only figure that accomplished anything to at least partially mitigate the genuine awfulness of the National Schools Chaplaincy Program over the past seven years was Education Minister Peter Garrett, who changed the program guidelines from the start of 2012 to allow schools to choose between chaplains or qualified student counsellors (hence the revised name). He also attempted to introduce a requirement that all workers, including chaplains, have some level of relevant qualifications, although recognition of ‘prior learning’ on the job was also encouraged.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of people employed as a result of this scheme remain ministers of religion. Imagine that: in 2014, the Commonwealth Government provides up to $24,000 per year to more than three and a half thousand schools to subsidise the employment of someone whose primary ‘qualification’, indeed whose primary vocation full stop, is to proselytise.

Ironically, the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program Guidelines then go to great lengths to attempt to limit the ability of chaplains to proselytise or evangelise from their position of authority within the school community, which is about as useful as telling a tree to stop growing leaves (or telling Cory Bernardi to stop being a bigot). It seems like the apotheosis of a set of rules where adherence, rather than breach, will be the exception.

The Guidelines themselves are also full of loopholes, allowing chaplains to “provid[e] services with a spiritual content (excluding religious education) including facilitating discussion groups and lunch time clubs” with approval and consent, as well as “performing religious services/rites (such as worship or prayer during school assembly etc), with… appropriate prior consent”.

This is an obvious and serious contravention of the principle of the separation of church and state. In the United States, such a program – paying for men (and some women) of faith to introduce their religion into government schools – would be struck out as unconstitutional by their Supreme Court.

Sadly, the anaemic interpretation of section 116 of the Constitution adopted by the High Court of Australia in the “DOGS case” [Attorney-General (Vic); Ex Rel Black v Commonwealth [1981] HCA 2; (1981) 146 CLR 559 (2 February 1981)] meant that it was never going to be struck down here, or at least not on those grounds.

Even after the program was successfully challenged by Toowoomba father, and man of principle, Ron Williams in 2012, with the High Court finding that the scheme did not have a legislative basis to appropriate money, the Government squibbed the ideal chance to abandon a flawed program and instead rushed through legislation to support its ongoing operation [as an aside, the High Court will be hearing a further challenge from Mr Williams, on May 6-8 2014, that the rushed omnibus Bill was itself unconstitutional].

And even if the National School Chaplaincy Program is ultimately found to be constitutional, there is still absolutely zero evidence that it is effective at improving the overall welfare of students.

If any of the Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Rudd (again) or now Abbott Governments genuinely considered that student welfare was a matter of priority, they would properly fund, rather than part subsidise, actual student counsellors or social workers to perform that function in every school, not implement a scheme where cashed-up churches could target individual cash-starved schools and offer the ‘services’ of ministers of religion, essentially as a backdoor way of indoctrinating a fresh generation of children.

There are ways in which the introduction of ministers of religion into schools can lead to direct harm too, not least of which being the issue of potential child sex abuse. In fact, at the same time as the hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse, the Government continues to encourage the employment of ministers of religion in public schools, with a code of conduct that allows them to have physical contact with students because “there may be some circumstances where physical contact may be appropriate such as where the student is injured or distraught”. [NB Obviously I am not saying that most, or even many, school chaplains are child sex abusers, but it seems unnecessary, and unnecessarily risky, to bring in people from institutions with a long history of covering-up such abuse and placing them in positions of trust in public schools.]

In addition, some (although obviously not all) ministers of religion also present a clear and present danger to young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) students, given the blatant homophobia adopted by particular churches and their officials. This threat is explicitly acknowledged by the Guidelines, which in response attempts to prohibit discriminatory behaviour on the basis of sexuality (although it doesn’t appear as though either gender identity or intersex status are mentioned at all).

In the same way as the prohibition on ‘proselytising’ described above, however, it is inevitable that there will be some ministers of religion, in some schools, who deliberately flout those rules, and in the process cause untold harm to young LGBTI students.

In short, the National Schools Chaplaincy Program is philosophically unsound, has no evidence that it benefits student welfare, is expensive, potentially causes harm and is clearly an inappropriate activity to be funded through taxpayers’ money. Surely, out of all of the programs funded by the Commonwealth, across almost all areas, it should be at or near the top of any Commission of Audit ‘hit-list’.

Even if the Commission of Audit abrogates its basic responsibility to recommend that the National School Chaplaincy Program be axed, Treasurer Joe Hockey will still have to make a decision on the future of the program as part of the 2014-15 Budget, because, as noted earlier, funding for the scheme runs out at the end of this year.

What action Joe Hockey takes on this will reveal a great deal about what kind of Treasurer he intends to be. Of all the incoming Abbott Ministers, Hockey has been the loudest in condemning middle-class welfare, in arguing that the role of Government must be smaller, and that inappropriate or unjustifiable programs should be cut.

Well, here is an ideal opportunity to live up to at least some of that rhetoric, savings upwards of $222 million in the process (that’s the equivalent of one and a half $6 GP co-payments for every person in Australia). If he does so on 13 May, then he should be applauded for it (noting of course that there might, just might, be some other things in the Budget that warrant a somewhat different response).

If Hockey fails to rise to the occasion, and extends or even expands funding for ministers of religion in our public schools, then it will show that he is not serious at all about reining in inappropriate spending, and does not believe in small Government – instead, it will simply demonstrate that he believes in big government of a different kind, one that takes money from genuine welfare programs and places it in the hands of ministers of religion for the propagation of their beliefs.

So, now it’s over to you Joe: would you rather take money from people who simply want to see their doctor via a bulk-billed appointment, or from a program which funds the placement of ministers of religion into our public schools? I know which one I would choose. I guess we’ll find out on Budget night which one you do.

Loaded Dog Piece on Ethics Classes

So, I have decided that I need to write more regularly, and will now be submitting pieces for the SMH Loaded Dog column on a semi-regular basis. I am not really concerned about whether they are published or not, it is more the frequency of writing, and the skill requird to convey an argument in 150 words or less (or at least to try and convey an argument). It also has the advantage of being able to comment on matters of public debate or interest. Anyway, here is what I submitted last week on ther topic: Shoud ethics classes be for all?

Ethics classes should be taught in all schools, religious and non-religious alike. All students, whether they believe in god(s) or not, would benefit from considering different ethical perspectives to the issues they will confront in everyday life as they grow older.

Of course, to accommodate ethics room must be made in the curriculum – and the most ethical decision would be to remove direct religious instruction, which has no place in a school system designed to serve the needs of a diverse and pluralistic society.

Despite this, no-one genuinely expects ethics classes to replace religious instruction, in part because of the power of the religious lobby in Australian democracy. Ironically, watching how that lobby uses (or, more accurately, abuses) their influence is one of the best justifications of the need for ethics classes in the first place.

Remove the Lord’s Prayer from Federal Parliament

There are many things which I miss about working as an adviser at Parliament House. And there are many things which I do not miss in the slightest. At the end of this, the first fortnight of sittings since I left Canberra, one thing which I am more than comfortable living without is the recital of the Lord’s Prayer at the start of each parliamentary day, both in the Senate and in the House of Representatives.

The majority of the Australian population do not pay close attention to what happens in parliament (indeed many pay no attention at all), so they would be blissfully unaware that each day begins with our parliamentarians engaging in a prayer in adherence to one particular religion. Indeed, even though I was relatively politically engaged before starting work there, even I was unaware that each and every day starts with the same religious ceremony, as it has done during every sitting since Federation.

This is simply unacceptable in a modern secular democracy. One of the core tenets of the Australian system of Government is, or at least should be, the separation of church and state. We are not a theocracy, there is no religious test for standing for public office and there is no official state religion – in fact, these principles are enshrined in our founding document (s116 of the Constitution reads “[t]he Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office of public trust under the Commonwealth”).

It is also curious that the prayer remains part of the order of parliamentary business when our Senators and House of Representatives members come from a wide range of religious backgrounds. Many are christian, but some are from other religions (including our first muslim MP in the current parliament), some are agnostic and many are atheist. Those who are not christian should move to end the recital of the Lord’s Prayer because it has no place in a house of legislation rather than a house of god/s.

In theory, they would be joined by the majority of capital ‘C’ christians, who should understand that the separation of church and state means that, in order for all faiths to be protected equally, the state should not preference any one religion and should not engage in religious observance itself. This is also necessary to protect those, such as myself, who have no faith. In fact, only the most extreme christian fundamentalists would argue that an arm of government should begin each day by invoking a prayer to one particular deity in whom many parliamentarians do not believe, just like many people in the community that they represent.

So why, in 2012, does this relic of religious observance continue to corrupt the beginning of each sitting day? Well, despite the notable efforts of some MPs in recent years to raise its profile (especially Bob Brown and Harry Jenkins), this issue is admittedly minor in consequence when compared to others which affect vastly more people more seriously (the only people directly affected by the recital are our MPs, the staff who work in Parliament House and the very small number of people watching via APAC).

It is also fair to say that only a small number of citizens care passionately about the issues raised either way – on the one side, secularists who support the separation of church and state, and on the other religious fundamentalists who believe that they should be able to impose their religion on others. And while secularists, such as myself, are and continue to be vocal, religious fundamentalists are an increasingly rabid group of people who, now used to getting their way (see: banning same-sex marriage, parachuting chaplains into schools), would likely employ a nuclear response to any attempt to jettison the prayer.

Which means that the majority of MPs who are not christians do not actively support this reform for fear of being labelled anti-christian (which is of course fundamentally untrue – secularism is not explicitly against any particular faith, rather it opposes the intrusion of faith into areas where it should not stray). Even parliamentarians who are capital ‘C’ christian but support the separation of church and state do not take on this issue because they do not want to incur the opprobrium of people like George Pell, Peter Jensen and Joe De Bruyn. The small minority of MPs who are religious fundamentalists do not have to do anything to secure yet another victory.

As a result, even though most Senators and House of Representatives members probably know that it should be removed, and it would take only a small amendment to standing orders to achieve, each sitting day still starts with the Lord’s Prayer. It will continue to do so until enough MPs are willing to stand up for principle over pragmatism. Well, one can hope anyway.

In the meantime, should you ever catch a glimpse of the start of parliamentary proceedings on APAC, or happen to be in the public gallery, it is interesting to witness the strategies which MPs adopt during the prayer. While some say the prayer out loud (you can probably guess which ones), others stand silent, looking as if they want to be anywhere else at that particular moment, and some orchestrate their late attendance so they arrive in the chamber after the prayer ends.

My coping mechanisms involved a combination of going for a well-timed coffee, judiciously employing the mute button, or simply talking over the top of the Senate broadcast. Unfortunately, on a couple of occasions I had to sit in the adviser’s box in the chamber, because a bill I was responsible for was coming on for debate as the first item of legislative business, and so listening to the prayer was completely unavoidable.

I don’t think that any employee in any workplace, let alone one working for the federal government, should have religious observance imposed upon them. That is a fundamental human right which should always be respected. In fact doesn’t s116 already say something along those lines? If only the High Court had the courage to invigorate that particular clause. But that is another post for another day…