The school chaplaincy program has become the subject of dire pronouncements of "religion being forced on our schools" and now a High Court challenge that began this week.
It's surprising that this relatively benign decision — to allow school communities the option to receive federal funding for a chaplain – is so controversial, considering chaplaincy has existed within many spheres of Australian society for years.
During recent disasters, such as bushfires, floods and cyclones, chaplains were well accepted as providers of an important role in the multi-faceted community response. Chaplains have also proved valuable in more than just disaster response. For example, the "Salvos" embody the pastoral care and spiritual support that typifies the role, and have been a much-loved part of the Australian landscape for decades.
Similarly, chaplaincy in schools is not new, having started in some states more than 50 years ago, and chaplains have long been in the emergency services, hospitals, the defence forces, and even professional sporting teams.
The High Court Challenge threatens funding for more than 2500 chaplains across Australia, and whether the current concerns spring from ideology or from a lack of information, understanding the National School Chaplaincy Program is important.
Importantly, having a school chaplain is voluntary. In the first instance, a school community will decide whether it wants a chaplaincy service, and then they agree on the faith background of the prospective chaplain. The reason that the majority of school chaplains come from the Christian faith is because the school community has made that collective choice.
Nevertheless, no matter what the faith of the chaplain, they provide comfort and support to all students and staff, regardless of their religious affiliation or beliefs. People often make the mistake of equating religious education classes with chaplaincy; however, the two are separate and distinct in role, function and personnel.
A key piece of misinformation muddying the issue is the false assertion that chaplains are there to proselytise. The inability, or unwillingness, to differentiate between imposition of religious beliefs, and serving spiritual needs, is fundamental to this confusion.
Spirituality is not something to be denied or feared. Rather, the 2008 "Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians", which was developed by the state, territory and Commonwealth ministers of education, states that schools play a vital role in ensuring the economic prosperity and social cohesion of Australia through "promoting the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and wellbeing of young Australians".
It's a fair statement then to say that the spiritual development and wellbeing of young Australians can't be promoted without people who have been trained to serve spiritual needs when they arise.
Further, a false dichotomy being parlayed is whether we should employ chaplains or counselors in our schools. This "one-or-the-other" approach doesn't recognise that chaplains work in partnership with other caring professionals in the wider school community, yet have a unique and distinctive role.
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