Williams wins High Court challenge against school chaplaincy

Maria Proctor, Ron and me outside the High Court on the first day of the hearing. Photo by Nelson Lau.

Chaplaincy challenge: Trophy for Williams, but ‘poison chalice’ for the states?

We were advised several days in advance that a decision on Ron Williams’ High Court Challenge against federal funding for the National School Chaplaincy Program would be handed down on Wednesday, 20 June 2012.

Anticipating that a decision must surely be imminent, I’d already started drafting an article and conducted an interview with Ron – I knew when the decision finally came down he’d be swamped by media!

The decision was scheduled for 10.15am. At the appointed hour, I was busily working on the article with ABC News 24 playing in the background. And, then, through the background hum came the decision:  Williams had won!

My hand flew to my mouth, my whole body went tingly, then numb and I started to scream, “We won! We won! We won!”

When Maria Proctor, (president of the Humanist Society of Queensland, which donated a significant amount towards Ron’s legal costs) rang we repeated the “We won! We won!” chant in duet.

Next Andrew Skegg (Godless Biz) was on the phone.  Andrew has been a tireless supporter of the High Court Challenge with his Stop the National School Chaplaincy facebook page and #StopNSCP tweets.

When the excitement died down, I felt like someone who’d simultaneously won the lottery and been run over by a truck.  Speaking to Ron, yesterday, I discovered he felt much the same!

Later in the day, I had the opportunity to speak to briefly to Ron and enjoyed a longer conversation with Ron’s  main supporter and ‘trusty side-kick’, Hugh Wilson, later that night.

In a 6:1 decision, the High Court upheld Ron’s claim that funding the National School Chaplaincy Program exceeded the executive powers of the Commonwealth. In short, it was unconstitiutional.

The judges were unanimous, however, that the program did not breach the ‘religious test’ clause of Section 116 of the Constitution.

While some glass-half-empty folks have chosen to see the latter decision as a ‘failure’ it was an ambit claim that Williams never expected to win.

“It was always about the funding,” he told me.

“Of course, we would have loved to have mounted another DoGS (Defence of Government Schools) case and reinstated Section 116 as a separation clause, but every bit of legal advice told us that just wasn’t possible.”

What Ron’s legal team did was to find another avenue to attack the program and he has emerged victorious. I think that’s time for some glass-more-than-half-full celebration.

It was always highly unlikely that the High Court Challenge was going to stop chaplaincy in its tracks. Everyone who followed the case closely understood that. Ron has always been clear that this was the ‘opening salvo’ in a much longer battle.  But what a salvo!

The most likely scenario now is that the government will fund chaplaincy through the states, via a tied grant or special purpose payment (SPP).  But, as I’ve explained in an article for ABC’s Religion and Ethics today, this may be something of a ‘poisoned chalice’ for the states.

When I spoke to Ron yesterday he assured me that if chaplaincy is to be administered by the states, that’s where the battle will move to.  This is, by no means, the end of the fight for the education system our founding fathers envisaged:  free, secular and compulsory.

I hope you’ll enjoy my Religion and Ethics article. I hope that Ron’s thousands of supporters will continue their interest in secular public education through following this blog, subscribing to the Stop the National School Chaplaincy Program Facebook page, and, if you happen to be independently wealthy, through monetary support to help the fighting fund.

There are not many people who get the opportunity to be a small part of making constitutional history. I’m so glad when the opportunity presented itself to work with Ron’s team – specifically Hugh Wilson (SPEL), Maria Proctor (Qld Humanists), Max and Meg Wallace (Australian United for the Separation of Church and State),  Dan Stevens, Nina Pace and Nelson Lau – I ‘seized the day’.

Those interested in the chaplaincy issue should be sure to watch the videos on Ron and Hugh’s Secular Public Education Lobby (SPEL)  website.

Parents experiencing problems with chaplaincy or any other kind of religious interference in public schools can contact Hugh and Ron at asl@australiansecularlobby.com . They really do want to hear from you.

Chrys Stevenson

Chaplaincy challenge: Trophy for Williams, but ‘poison chalice’ for the states?



7 thoughts on “Williams wins High Court challenge against school chaplaincy

  1. David Fisher

    I regard it as a tremendous victory with monumental appications. One of the possible applications is that the prime minister can no longer decide by himself or herself that the country is at war. Unless both houses of parliament agree funding for the war can be denied. Another possible application is that funding for non-public schools can no longer be easily used as a political ploy by the pm if such funding has to be approved by parliament. Howard managed to prevent a pastoral letter from the Catholic Bishops Conference against the GST by promising $400 M more to their schools. I would have liked to have seen S. 116 recognised, but I think the glass is 80% full.

  2. Vance

    Christine Milne & the Greens seem to be offering the sole voice of reason amongst our politicians on this issue. I won’t be voting Labor ever again, because of their willingness to betray secular principles in order to win the votes of the Christian right. Sadly, the alternative government has even less interest in secular principles.

    Nicola Roxon’s hypocrisy in particular is astonishing. She commented on Q & A that her attitude towards religion was – “each to their own as long as it doesn’t cut into our public life.” If using taxpayer funds to put evangelical Christians into public schools doesn’t qualify as cutting into our public life, then what the hell does?

  3. Jayel

    I too was disappointed (though not surprised given the track record) that the s 116 challenge was not even _heard_ by the high court judges, and to have to acknowledge that constitutional separation of church and state is rather weak in this country. And, I have to admit that I was oddly guarded about any joyful reaction when I heard that Ron had won (not because I didn’t want him to, but because I didn’t, and still don’t, really know the implications). Add to this the knee-jerk declarations of support and vows to find a way to continue the program from all stripes of pollies (again, not actually all that surprising – although Nicola Roxon particularly disappointed given her previous public statements of non-belief), and the over-confident comments from representatives of chaplain providers, and I wasn’t sure just what to think! Had it been a pyrrhic victory? Would it actually work to entrench the program even more firmly?

    This article has at least given me some perspective on what the goals of bringing the challenge were in the first place and that this is seen as the first step of, perhaps, many in trying to rid the country of this ill-conceived program. So, although I probably tend to be somewhat of a glass half empty person, I am topping that glass up with your words and taking a big swig of encouragement from them! Thanks!:-)

    I certainly don’t think the latest census results hurt the cause either (if any of the politicians would just take heed of them). It would be fantastic if a further survey of those identifying as Christian, a la the Ipsos/Mori survey commissioned by the Richard Dawkins Foundation in England, could be conducted; my guess is that it would likely reveal a similar result that many of those ‘Christians’ are merely cultural Christians, thereby giving a truer picture of the degree of religiosity of the nation.

  4. doug Steley

    I am curious as to why the states seemingly supported this if it would cause problems for their state federal funding arrangements ( am I missing something in reading this ? )

  5. Alex

    Why would the states support this ?, As Grants given to the states under Section 96 are consensual, i.e. the States must be willing to accept the grants from the Commonwealth.

    I can imagine the following conversation:

    Commonwealth: “We want you (the states) to accept the monies appropriated under the NSCP and Catholic Funding Block, as we can’t give away taxpayers money (without legislative accountability) any more”

    States: “Beside the Grants, How much extra funding are you going to give us for state school education ?”

    Commonwealth: “None, in fact we are going to continue to under-fund you”

    States: “Well then, No, we will not accept the Grants”

    Commonwealth: “What !, if you don’t pass on the money, that would mean that the religious establishments, that have spent considerable time manipulating the taxation system so as to avoid having paying any income tax, would have to spend some of that money!, That’s outrageous !”

    States: “Well, if you think that’s outrageous, you are going to be apoplectic next year, when we wish to discuss the under-funding State Hospitals. Humm…. isn’t next year an election year?”


    As a person who sees this as a victory, I was more than happy to have made my donations,
    but I’m not expecting a referendum any time soon on the separation of Church and State,
    as the Dominionists don’t want to lose any time soon!

  6. David Gorringe

    About a year ago now, didn’t Bob Carr make some online and radio comment about this matter, suggesting that the whole concept of financing religious education in schools was abhorrent to him?


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