Monthly Archives: August 2011

High Court Challenge – Last Man Standing?

The day has dawned grey and cloudy in Canberra and we’re just getting ready to head over to the High Court for the first day of the hearing.  I’m looking forward to seeing who might make an appearance – not just in court, but among the onlookers.  Will Tim Mander and Jim Wallace turn up?

I’m also not sure what will be discussed today, but I suspect one of the first issues to be addressed may be the issue of ‘standing’.  This refers to whether Ron Williams has a personal interest in the matters he has brought before the High Court.  As I understand it, the Commonwealth and most of the states have not significantly challenged Ron’s standing, but Scripture Union Queensland and the Queensland government have.

Cases involving questions of constitutional validity of statutes require that a plaintiff  must demonstrate that their person or property is, or in the immediate future will probably be, affected by the statute under challenge.

The person must have a special interest in the subject of the action and be able to demonstrate that they have a ‘real interest’ in the relief sought.

At issue is whether Williams has standing to challenge the drawing of money from Consolidated Revenue for the financial years:  2007-2008 through 2010-2011.

Williams claims standing on expenditure made prior to his children being enrolled at the school by virtue of the fact that ‘funds expended assisted in entrenching a program which now effects his children at that School …’

The Attorney General for Queensland attacks Williams’ standing to seek relief. He asserts that neither Williams’ freedom of action or that of his children is affected by the National School Chaplaincy Program.  This is supposedly on the basis that Ron’s children have never participated in the NSCP and are under no obligation to do so.

Williams argues, however,  that the school’s application for funding makes it clear that the chaplain worked on Personal Development Programs for both males and females in the Senior School; worked on the Reading Programme for Years 2 and 3 and worked in various capacities in the Prep/1 area of the School.  She was also involved in reading groups and in providing classroom assistance.

The court, says Williams, may infer that the chaplain was involved in aspects of the life of the School that extended far beyond pastoral care.  Indeed, she was a presence in the classroom.

Scripture Union also notes that, in order for a matter to be heard by the court, it must be ‘justiciable’ – that is, it must be a matter which can be remedied in some legal sense.  In what I like to think of as ‘the horse has bolted’ argument, SUQ claims:

  • all funds for chaplaincy at Williams’ children’s school has been paid out for this year
  • no contract has been entered into for next year
  • there is no claim for monies paid to be refunded

so, therefore  there is no legal remedy.

That’s all I have time for this morning.  Does Ron have standing or not? Hopefully, we’ll know more after today.

Chrys Stevenson

Posts in this High Court Challenge Series (in order):

High Court Challenge: We Arrive in Canberra

High Court Challenge: Last Man Standing?

High Court Challenge – Day 1: The Hearing Begins

High Court Challenge  – Day 2: Scintillating Boredom

High Court Challenge – Day3 (a):  Terrible Consequences

High Court Challenge – Day 3 (b): The ‘Master’ Speaks

If you support Ron Williams’ High Court Challenge, please consider making a donation at the High Court Challenge website. Support for Williams has been overwhelming, but legal fees are still outstanding.  Ron, his wife and their six children should not have to bear the full brunt of the outstanding amount.

High Court Challenge – We Arrive in Canberra

It seemed slightly surreal walking into Brisbane Airport today.  For many of us in the freethought community, the High Court Challenge has consumed a great deal of our time and attention.  Now, at last, I was about to board a flight to Canberra for the hearing tomorrow!

I met Maria Proctor, President of the Humanist Society of Queensland in the departures area and we checked in together.  The Queensland Humanists have been a major sponsor of the Challenge, contributing in excess of $25,000 towards Ron’s legal costs.  I must say, I was very proud to have Maria as my travelling companion.

In the departure lounge, who should saunter up but Ron Williams and Hugh Wilson (Australian Secular Lobby) – fortuitously booked on the same flight as us.

It was great to catch up with them both ‘pre-hearing’ and both were relaxed and in exceedingly good spirits as you can see from the photo below:

We caught up with Ron and Hugh again as we disembarked at Canberra.  As soon as we arrived at the airport Ron’s mobile started running hot with calls and texts.  He’ll be appearing on Sunrise tomorrow – broadcasting live from Parliament House.  I don’t have an exact time, but I believe it will be around 6.30am-7am.  There might also be an article in the Daily Telegraph tomorrow.

Maria mentioned that she’d had a call from a television producer asking if there would be anyone protesting about chaplaincy outside the High Court.

“Protesting?” said Maria, puzzled, “You mean, with placards?”


“I certainly hope not!” Maria replied.  “This is a serious case, I’d be most disappointed if anyone tried to turn it into a circus by waving placards around!”

So, sorry, journos – as far as we know there’ll be no photo opportunities of rabid atheists and humanists picketing the High Court!  Hopefully we have way too much class for that – and it’s certainly not the kind of support that Ron wants, or needs!

Ron was telling us how grateful he was to Phillip Adams for the opportunity to tell his story on Late Night Live last week.  We all had a laugh about Uncle Phil saying to Ron, “You’re a trouble maker!”

Ron also said that PZ Myers’ blog post about the High Court Challenge brought donations in from as far afield as the USA and Norway.  Thanks from all of us, PZ and Pharyngulites!

We shared a taxi into Canberra with Ron and Hugh and hope to catch up with them later tonight – depending on just how hot Ron’s mobile rings in the interim.

We’re also looking forward to catching up with Max and Meg Wallace from the Australia New Zealand Secular Association, Andrew Rawlings from the Melbourne Atheists, Elida Radig from the Progressive Atheists and, hopefully, the local Canberra Atheists as well.  Whether we can fit all that in to one night remains to be seen – but we’ll try!

The hearing begins at 10am tomorrow morning and finishes (for the day) around 4pm.  I’ll try to post an update at lunchtime and another in the evening.  Stay tuned!

Meanwhile, here’s the view of Canberra from our apartment.  (Just to prove we’re really here!)

Chrys Stevenson

Posts in this High Court Challenge Series (in order):

High Court Challenge: We Arrive in Canberra

High Court Challenge: Last Man Standing?

High Court Challenge – Day 1: The Hearing Begins

High Court Challenge  – Day 2: Scintillating Boredom

High Court Challenge – Day3 (a):  Terrible Consequences

High Court Challenge – Day 3 (b): The ‘Master’ Speaks

If you support Ron Williams’ High Court Challenge, please consider making a donation at the High Court Challenge website. Support for Williams has been overwhelming, but legal fees are still outstanding.  Ron, his wife and their six children should not have to bear the full brunt of the outstanding amount.

Census 2011 – Mark No Religion

I was going to write about the reasons why it’s important for those who no longer practice the religion into which they were born or baptised to mark ‘No Religion’ on their Australian Census on Tuesday night.

But, Shockwave Writer has done such a good job on her blog that I’m just sending you right over there.  Well done, Shockwave!

Mark No Religion – 2011 Census by Shockwave Writer 







What I Think about Think Inc.

When news about the Think Inc. Convention first appeared in my Twitter stream,  announcing speakers like Christopher Hitchens, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Neil deGrasse Tyson I remember thinking, “Whoa! Where did this come from?”

Of course, the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 attracted some huge names, but they were booked through the ‘tried and true’ Atheist Alliance International and the Atheist Foundation of Australia. Members of the atheist and sceptical communities were familiar with these groups and were comfortable with them.  But, now, a similar (albeit one-day) convention of ‘Biblical’ proportions seemed to have appeared out of the ether.  Its organisers, it turned out, were a small group of young men virtually unknown to either the atheist or sceptical communities. I couldn’t help but wonder how they’d managed (apparently) to sign some of the biggest stars in the ‘rational’ universe. And I wasn’t alone.

There’s been a bit of scepticism about the Think Inc. event.  I guess that’s almost par for the course when your target market is a bunch of self-identified sceptics.  Was it legit? Would it definitely go ahead?  And how the bloody hell did a bunch of young nobodies manage to snare “The Hitch”?

There was so much ‘chatter’ going on about this event, that I decided to go straight to the source.  In the last week I’ve had two very long telephone conversations with organiser, Sean Kwan. In fact, as someone with previous experience in organising major events,  I’ve given the poor boy quite a grilling.  To Sean’s credit, he’s been happy to answer every question I’ve asked him – even the hard ones and the ones it really wasn’t my business to ask.

Sean explained that, although virtually unknown in our community, he and his business partners have considerable experience in the management of large events – particularly music events.  One of their biggest ventures was Melbourne’s the Jump Off Under 18s Music Festival  in December 2010.  This featured a long list of international artists and drew a crowd of over 4000 people.

So how did Sean and his partners manage to book so many big names from the atheist and sceptical world?  Shockingly simple, really – the same way they book international music acts – through their agents.

One of my hobby-horses is the need to get young, talented, enthusiastic people heading up our communities.  We oldies have a lot to offer, and I’m not suggesting we be pensioned off and consigned to wheel-chairs at the back of the hall just yet. But I’d love to see a younger faces fronting Australian atheism and scepticism. We have such great young talent, and I’d love us oldies to push the young ones into the spotlight and let them shine.  Jason Ball, OJ Lesslar, Jayson Cooke, Andrew Skegg, Kylie Sturgess – all these under 40s (and others) are just fabulous advertisements for reason and essential to attract the next generation of activists for secular and sceptical issues.  I’d love to see our events rock.  So,  I’d like to see we older campaigners take a bit of a risk and trust that the younger generation can do the job.  After chatting with Sean, I felt reassured that he knows what he’s doing and I really felt I’d like to support him.

Sean and his team are all atheists and sceptics.  They (along with their financial backers and sponsors) have taken a huge risk in putting together what looks to be an incredibly exciting event.  Perhaps it’s the type of event that only a young team like this would be game to tackle independently.  What marvellous things we can achieve when we’re young and seemingly bullet-proof!

Honestly, I can’t say whether Think Inc. will be a financial success.  But, Sean has assured me that they have passed the point of no return – contracts have been signed with the venue and all the speakers, deposits and upfront payments have been made so the event is absolutely, definitely, 100% going ahead.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

And, what an event it will be!  Christopher Hitchens, of course, is too ill to travel to Australia but will be appearing by video link-up.  Due to some recent security concerns, Ayaan Hirsi Ali has yet to be 100% confirmed for a live appearance – although everything possible is being done to make this happen.  If not, she will appear by video link.  But, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson is definitely appearing live and will be heading the line-up along with environmental scientist Tim Flannery and sceptic, Michael Shermer.  The absolutely fabulous Father Bob Maguire and the eminently huggable Josh Thomas are also listed to speak, along with Youtube star, Cristina Rad, and many others.

Tickets are quite reasonably priced for an event in such a great venue (the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre) and with such high profile names.  Day passes are $145 and students can get in for just $115 (plus a small booking fee).  If you’re cashed up and want to mix it with the big names, you can do that too by buying a VIP pass for $300.  This gives you access to some private events with the speakers and guaranteed best seating on the day.

I know that all of us are looking forward eagerly to the second Global Atheist Convention to be held in April 2012,  but this event is slightly different in its focus and offers a great opportunity to see even more of the world’s greatest scientists, sceptics and rational thinkers.  There can never be too much of a good thing – and what the hell else would you do with that hundred odd bucks anyway, huh?

So, bottom line, let’s get behind this event.  I’ve been very impressed with Sean Kwan’s honesty and sincerity and, if he gets our support,  we can look forward to more events of this type in the future.

Sean and his team may be young, but they’re not inexperienced and I’d like to see ‘our team’ give them a go.

The Think Inc. convention will be held on 18 September at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.  More details are available at the Think Inc. website.

Chrys Stevenson

Access All Areas

Mum and Dad - godless but good

Australia is one of the world’s least religious countries. Many of us don’t believe in God or a divine power, many more don’t really give it much thought.

Despite this, we’re pretty laid back about those who do believe. I’m reminded of my Dad’s assessment of his new Seventh Day Adventist neighbour: “He’s got some funny ideas, but he’s a good bloke.”  The neighbour soon passed the ‘Dad’ test and was duly dubbed ‘my mate Kev’. Dad wasn’t religious, but he didn’t really care what you believed, as long as you didn’t try to convert him or mess with his kids. Just so, while 92 per cent of Australians don’t bother going to church most Sundays we don’t have any quibble with those who do – at least they’re not waking us up mowing their lawns!

Australians are a tolerant bunch. Sometimes we’re criticized for being so tolerant we’re apathetic. In truth, we just want to get on with our own lives and let others get on with theirs. But we’re not doormats. There’s a point at which the normal, laid-back Aussie puts down the TV remote, gets off the recliner, stands up and shouts, “I’ve had e-bloody-nough of this!” And then the fur starts to fly. That’s what happened when the Access Ministries ‘religion in schools’ scandal, broke.

When it was revealed the organisation which supplies chaplains and scripture teachers to Victorian state schools saw their privileged access to children as a God-given opportunity to recruit disciples for Jesus, all hell broke loose. Indeed, the news was met with the deafening sound of ordinary Australian mums, dads, grandparents, teachers, religious leaders and theologians shouting enough is enough!

There’s been a rising disquiet about the intrusion of fundamentalist religion into Australian politics, education, health and welfare for some time – and not just amongst the atheist fringe. In 2005, academic and theologian, Marion Maddox warned about the growing political influence of those with extremist Christian views in her book, God Under Howard. Her revelations and a change of government in 2007 didn’t stop Kevin Rudd and, now, Julia Gillard pandering to the shrill demands of the same zealous minority for more money, more exemptions, more access and more influence over their fellow Australians’ lives.

The same concerns motivated Warren Bonett to compile The Australian Book of Atheism (Scribe, 2010) to which I contributed last year. Far from being a sustained atheistic rant against religion, the 30 authors, (many whose names will be familiar to the general public), provide what theologian, Peter Kirkwood, described as “Reasonable people politely showing God the door.”

A large proportion of Australians who don’t go to church – and many who do – will be unaware that fundamentalists aspire to reclaim our nation for Christ and create God’s Kingdom here in Terra Australis – with or without your consent. This is what’s known in the US as Christian nationalism – the idea that public institutions should operate according to (the fundamentalist interpretation of) Biblical law. And it’s not just all talk.

According to David Yates, the Australian Christian Lobby launched Compass Australia in 2007 to identify ‘future influencers for Christ in society’, nurture their paths through university and beyond, and help them infiltrate Australian media, education, politics and law. The agenda-driven aim is to exert a ‘disproportionate impact’ for the Gospel on Australian culture and society. Compass, Yates explains, is thinking, “about 15 to 20 years down the track … These fields, to us, are the strategic areas.”

The recruitment starts in schools. But, with religious affiliation and church attendance plummeting, there’s an alarming shortage of potential conscripts. That’s where organisations like Access step in. “There is an enormous amount of Christian ministry going on in our schools,” says CEO Evonne Paddison, “but we must ask how much of that ministry is actually resulting in Christian conversion and discipleship growing and resulting in church growth?”

Ms Paddison is touchingly grateful for the ‘access all areas’ pass her organisation has been given – at taxpayers’ expense.

“In Australia we have a God-given open door to children and young people with the Gospel, our federal and state governments allow us to take the Christian faith into our schools and share it. We need to go and make disciples … I believe that this is the greatest mission field we have in Australia: our children and our students. Our greatest field for disciple making.”

Importantly, the instruction to bring state school children into the fundamentalist fold is directly in breach of Access Ministries’ promise not to proselytise in state schools.  Nor is this just a Victorian issue. In Queensland, Scripture Union provides a similar service under the same kind of restrictions. That doesn’t stop CEO, Tim Mander (potentially Queensland’s next Education Minister), gloating at the captive audience a vote-buying government and an apathetic public have delivered into his lap: “Here is the church’s opportunity to make a connection with the one place through which every young person must attend: our schools.”

My Dad was a typical, laid-back Aussie. He didn’t have much time for religion but he taught us that double-dealing, breaking promises, and taking money under false pretences were wrong. He believed in giving anyone a fair go but he wouldn’t have let us kids within a ‘bulls roar’ of the manipulative missionaries whose strategy to ‘access all areas’ starts in our state schools and ends with our government.

Chrys Stevenson

Chaplaincy Challenge

First, my apologies to my subscribers for the lack of content on this blog over the last couple of months.  I’ve been unwell but I’m back now and firing on all cylinders.

Ron Williams’ High Court Challenge against federal funding for the National School Chaplaincy Program will be heard in Canberra next week.

I’ll be travelling to Canberra with Maria Proctor, President of the Humanist Society of Queensland.  The Queensland Humanists are the major financial backers of the Challenge, having contributed nearly $25,000  towards Ron’s legal costs.

There has been a great deal of misinformation about the issues that will actually be discussed at the High Court.  To bring myself ‘up to speed’ I  spent a week ploughing through all the legal documents (available on the High Court’s website).   My pre-hearing summary was published this week on ABC’s The Drum – and I hope to submit a follow-up article immediately after the hearing.

For those interested in following the case, I’ll be posting a daily update here, and tweeting from @Chrys_Stevenson.  You can also catch updates on my Facebook  page.  I’ll be using the twitter hashtag #HighCourtNSCP.  You may also wish to follow Ron’s official twitter account at @HighCourtNSCP.

If you’re able to join us in Canberra, we’d love to see you – the more support the better. We’re already looking forward to  spending time with Hugh Wilson from the Australian Secular Lobby, Max Wallace (The Purple Economy), Meg Wallace, Andrew Rawlings from the Melbourne Atheists and the indomitable Elida Radig from Victoria’s Progressive Atheists.

The cost of mounting this challenge is enormous and Ron still urgently needs assistance to help cover his legal costs.  Please consider making a donation at the High Court Challenge website.

Chrys Stevenson