Monthly Archives: June 2014

Secular Parent takes on Scripture Union’s Peter James

“My right to swing my religious fist is being crushed by those demanding I not contact their face.” – Justin Schieber (@justinsweh)

Martin Boers

Martin Boers (@MartinBoers), Laming blog

Regular readers will know I very rarely host guest bloggers. Last week, however, I came across a post from Martin Boers, a parent of school-age children and a passionate advocate for secular education. Martin’s post is so well-written and topical I had to share it. He has kindly given me permission to reblog it here on Gladly.

On his Laming blog, Martin responds to an article in the Adelaide Advertiser by Peter James, CEO of Scripture Union Queensland, the evangelical, missionary organisation which supplies the majority of Queensland’s school chaplains. He takes James to task over his complaint that the  public debate over chaplaincy is characterised by ‘anti-religious cheap shots and mocking’.

James’ article, in turn, responds to a piece by Tory Shepherd, which asks how Australians would react to the contention there should be an imam in every school.

I’ve met Peter James. He’s a nice enough man – certainly an improvement on his predecessor, the rock-jawed and intellectually vacuous Tim Mander. But, as Martin points out, James’ thinking is as clouded and woolly as one might expect from someone who accepts the Bible as the literal truth and sees the imposition of his particular brand of Christianity as a sacred entitlement – the denial of which he interprets as ‘discrimination’ and ‘religious vilification’.

Read Martin Boers’ ‘A Reply to Peter James’ – I think you’ll agree it’s a post worth sharing.  You can link directly to Martin’s blog here:

Follow Martin on Twitter at @MartinBoers.


A reply to Peter James

by Martin Boers, Laming blog

Peter James is the CEO of Scripture Union Queensland and the spokesperson for the National School Chaplaincy Association. An opinion piece from Peter James appeared in the Adelaide Advertiser on 26 June, which was full of poor arguments and downright untruths in support of the National School Chaplaincy Program.
This is my response to some of the statements made by Peter James in his article.Schools should allow, and be respectful of, all views.Wrong.Schools should allow and be respectful of all people.Schools should not allow or be respectful of the view that (for example) it’s acceptable to discriminate against any person on the basis of accent, gender, skin colour or sexual orientation.When it comes to matters of fact, schools should only teach things that are undeniably true (e.g. evolution) or things that are still the subject of genuine scientific research and debate (e.g. the origins of the universe), and are not obliged to “teach” every ridiculous claim that was ever made throughout history.

We do not need students to have a particular view imposed on them, but neither do we need students told their religious view is “crap’’, ‘‘snake oil’’, ‘’humbuggery’’ or ‘‘bunkum’’.Correct.

However, adults like Peter James do need to be told, for example, that intelligent design and creationism are “crap”, that the promise of life after death is “snake oil”,  that intercessory prayer is “humbuggery” and that the claim “Jesus loves you” is bunkum. As Daniel Dennett says, “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.”

Children, on the other hand, need to be taught critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning skills, rather than being taught to accept ideas from an authority figure on faith alone. By equiping students with such skills, they will come to their own conclusions when presented with the ridiculous ideas that Scripture Union Queensland (and their counterparts in other states) would have kids believe.

Quite aside from questions of anti-discrimination and religious vilification, if a school system is hostile to students’ religious views it fails to achieve our national educational goals.


Religious organisations are NOT being discriminated against or vilified by being denied the opportunity to preach discrimination and vilification to children in publicly funded secular schools. This is a ridiculously naïve argument, which is surprising from a former lawyer like Peter James, since by this argument it follows that any crackpot cult can claim “discrimination” if they aren’t given free and unsupervised access to children in all public schools. This claim of victimisation has been formulated in a tweet from philosopher Justin Schieber (@justinsweh) as: “My right to swing my religious fist is being crushed by those demanding I not contact their face.”.

And the scrapping of the Chaplaincy Program does NOT mean that the school system is hostile to students’ religious views. I have never seen any indication that public schools care one way or the other what supernatural beliefs their students hold, and outside of school hours parents are always free to indoctrinate their children with whatever whacky ideas they choose. In fact public schools go further than they should in facilitating indoctrination during school hours through Scripture and Special Religious Instruction, when these “classes” should be consigned to the historical scrapheap.

And I thought that school chaplaincy wasn’t about religion anyway – it’s about “pastoral care”, isn’t it? So where does religious vilification come into it?

School chaplains … help students … develop positive self-image, confidence and resilience … and support students and the school community in times of grief and loss, when some of the big questions of life arise for them.

So do all teachers and parents. But for those students who need specialised, professional support, there is no evidence that minimally qualified religious chaplains are able to give anywhere near the level of support that qualified psychologists and welfare workers can provide. The implication in this statement from Peter James is insulting to the people who genuinely care about child welfare and who dedicate their careers to this work.

It is entirely voluntary, requires appropriate parental consents …


I never got a note from my school asking for my consent for the chaplain at our school to talk to my children, and I’m not aware of any parent that has. Peter James may be thinking of Scripture or SRI classes, which (at our school) also do not require consent – they require parents to “opt-out” their children – but at least there is that option.

In 2012, a 30-month longitudinal study of school chaplaincy by the Research Centre for Vulnerable Children and Families at the University of Western Australia found that the role of school chaplains is overwhelmingly valued by school principals, teachers, parents, students, psychologists and professional associations.

And in May 2014, an Essential poll found that only 5% of those surveyed supported the Government’s policy of funding only religious chaplains.

So while school chaplains are now funded through to the end of 2014 with no regulation, guidelines or government oversight, really worthwhile student programs like NSW Primary Ethics continue to grow quietly – without any financial support from the government – through the hard work of thousands of unpaid volunteers who want a better future for all children.

Jeremy Bentham and Australia – A Speech to the NSW Humanists

Chrys SpeechOn Friday, 20 June, I had the great privilege of speaking at the Humanist Society of NSW symposium on the Enlightenment and the Roots of Humanism. The event was hosted by Greens MP Adam Bandt in the Macquarie Room at Parliament House, Sydney.

Also on the program were president of the Rationalist Society of Australia, Meredith Doig, well known humanist author, David Tribe, , Emeritus Professor Frank Stillwell, Unitarian Minister, Ian Ellis-Jones and treasurer of the Humanist Society of NSW, Dr Victor Bien.

My speech focused on 18th century Enlightenment philosopher and law reformer, Jeremy Bentham and his influence on Australia’s government, law, public institutions, history and national identity.

Although Jeremy Bentham never set foot in Australia his influence suffuses almost every aspect of Australian public life. In the speech I argue that far from Christianity being the dominant influence in the development of Australia, it is Jeremy Bentham who has most shaped our history, our constitution, our government, public institutions, even the way we shop! We are not a Christian nation, we are a Benthamite society.

The speech was recorded and you can watch it here.  Later, when I have more time I will finish hyperlinking the transcript of the speech and have it published.

A fully referenced transcript of the speech is online here.

If you are fascinated by Jeremy Bentham, you might also enjoy this song:  Jeremy Bentham’s Head

Jeremy Bentham Auto Icon

Jeremy Bentham

 Chrys Stevenson

Greens Weigh in on Abbott’s $37m Chaplaincy ‘Gift’

Penny WrightSenator Penny Wright (Greens, spokesperson for schools) made a fine effort today trying to get some answers from the government about Mr Abbott’s $37 million gift to chaplaincy providers (see my two previous posts).

You can watch Senator Wright grilling the government’s senate education representative Senator Marise Payne here (starts at 21:00).

Following is a media release from Senator Wright’s office.


23 June 2014

Chaplains oversight gone as invalidated program continues

The Abbott Government’s response to the High Court decision will see chaplains and welfare workers remain in schools without any Federal Government oversight, says Australian Greens spokesperson for schools Senator Penny Wright.

Senator Wright said the Commonwealth Government’s explanation that chaplains and welfare workers would now be overseen by State governments was inadequate.

“The High Court decision means the chaplaincy program can no longer be funded or administered by the Federal Government – the Federal Education Department website clearly spells this out,” Senator Wright said.

“So all the guidelines, codes of conduct and complaints procedures have gone out the window.

“But because the Commonwealth has chosen not to recoup money not yet spent, chaplains and welfare workers will remain in schools until the end of the year.

“The Australian Government must not deny responsibility for this – the states cannot simply take over the Federal Education Department’s administration of the invalidated chaplaincy program.

“The Federal Government needs to explain how they will ensure the safety and wellbeing of students for the next six months.”

In response to the High Court decision invalidating the National School Chaplaincy and Welfare Program, the Coalition announced it would waive the subsequent debt on payments made to date, including $74 million for 2014 – allowing chaplains and welfare workers remain in schools until the end of the year.


Chrys Stevenson

Abbott’s $37m gift to chaplaincy providers

This morning I blogged a lot of questions about Scripture Union CEO, Peter James’ claim that chaplaincy was funded up until the end of December – despite having been declared illegal by the High Court of Australia.

At the time, it was my understanding that chaplaincy payments were made quarterly and that the next tranche of funds was due on 30 June. Clearly, with the court decision falling prior to that date, that tranche, if due, should not have been paid.

It’s now become clear that, after the decision was handed down in Ron Williams’ first case and the government realised another High Court challenge was likely, they changed the funding arrangements. Now (at considerably more expense to taxpayers in lost interest), chaplaincy providers are paid yearly, in January.

So, here is the position as I understand it now.

  • Chaplaincy providers were paid, in advance, to provide a full year of chaplaincy services for 2014. That payment was made in January.
  • That money came from the $222 million the Gillard government committed to chaplaincy to cover a 3 year period; that is, $74 million per year – or $37 million per half year.
  • On 19 June, 2014, the High Court ruled that Federal  funding for chaplaincy is illegal – and that all payments made to date have been illegal.
  • Technically, that money should have had to have been repaid to Consolidated Revenue but, not unfairly in my opinion, the Finance Minister waived the debt. Chaplaincy providers would not have to return money paid for services rendered.
  • But, now it becomes obvious that not only was the debt for services rendered waived, but so was the debt for $37 million(half of the $74 million annual cost) paid in advance to fund the program from June-December 2014; money that will be in the banks of the para-church organisations but not yet spent on chaplains’ wages.

Why has this amount been waived?

Fair enough that the chaplaincy providers don’t have to repay money already paid in wages to chaplains. But, the government has made it clear that, effective immediately,  the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program can no longer be funded or administered by the Federal government. It is dead. Kaput.

Why then, has the government effectively gifted $37 million of taxpayers’ money to chaplaincy providers for services that have not yet been rendered for a program which has now been deemed illegal?

If we are as hard up as Treasurer Joe Hockey claims,  how can we afford this $37 million gift to para-church organisations to go off and do their own thing for the next six months?

It’s outrageous and irresponsible.

That $37 million should have to be repaid. The scheme is no longer operative. The money has not yet been expended on wages. The money belongs in Consolidated Revenue, not in the pockets of the para-church organisations.

Chrys Stevenson


Breaking: Has the government pulled another ‘swifty’ on chaplaincy funding?

Update: See update here.

There are some actions so unethical that we who don’t move within political or religious circles can hardly conceive of them. Naively, one imagines that even among politicians and fundamentalist Christians there must be some scruples. But, if information that has just come to hand is accurate, it appears there is no level to which they will not stoop.

Now, it’s the weekend and it’s hard to check the validity of everything that comes next, so a  lot of this has to be prefaced by ‘if’.

It’s come to my attention today that in a media conference after the High Court ruled that Federal funding for the National School Chaplaincy Program was ruled illegal – for the second time – by the High Court – Peter James, CEO of Scripture Union Queensland, confirmed in answer to a journalists’ questions that funding for chaplaincy had been paid up to the end of December.

“The funding for the current year has been paid and is available for use up until December.” – Peter James around 2:15.

When Williams won his first High Court challenge against chaplaincy, the decision was handed down close to the end of the financial year, sending the Gillard government into a mad scramble to pass legislation in order to pay the sum of $16.4 million outstanding to chaplaincy providers for what we understand (but may be wrong) was a quarterly payment. This suggests that advance payments due to chaplaincy providers fall due on or after 30 June.

Assuming arrangements haven’t changed, that payment is due again on or after 30 June this year. This is almost certainly why the High Court made such a quick decision and handed down the ruling before that date – to avoid the illegal disbursement of any more taxpayers’ money.

If Mr James is correct, and his organisation has been paid what appears to be 6 months in advance for chaplaincy services before the due date, it raises the very serious question as to whether the government has deliberately set out to circumvent a High Court ruling. I am no constitutional lawyer, but it seems to me that may be illegal.

My suspicions that the government may have pulled a ‘swifty’ are raised by Attorney-General George Brandis’ eagerness to announce that the Finance Minister has arranged to ‘waive’ the debt of  $150m in illegal funds paid to SUQ.  If I am right (and, this has yet to be confirmed) this would include money paid after the Williams (2) hearing, in anticipation of a negative High Court ruling, before its due date, in advance, to cover chaplaincy services for the next six (?) months.

So is the Finance Minister waiving the debt for the disbursement of millions of taxpayers’ money which SUQ hasn’t even had a chance to use yet?

Has SUQ accepted millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money paid early to avoid a High Court ruling? Will SUQ spend millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money, illegally disbursed from Consolidated Revenue?

If this is the case, I’d like to know how Mr James and his organisation square what seems to be tantamount to the theft of taxpayers’ money with their so-called ‘Christian values’.

I will try to confirm what has happened over the next few days, and my bet is that if the government has pulled another ‘swifty’ on the High Court ruling, Ron Williams will be seeking legal advice. I suspect also that the justices of the High Court will be none too pleased at the government thumbing their nose at them, the Australian Constitution, and, by extension, Australian taxpayers, a second time.

Chrys Stevenson

Update: See update here.









Chaplaincy – What next? A word from the government

ding dongThe Federal government has made the following statement following the High Court’s decision in favour of Ron Williams’ contention that Federal funding for the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare program is illegal:

National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program High Court judgment

On 19 June 2014, the High Court of Australia found the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program to be invalid.

Thursday 19 June 2014


Following the High Court’s decision, the Commonwealth no longer has capacity to administer or control the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program.

It may be that services continue to be provided at particular schools – whether that is the case will be a matter for the individual schools and the providers of chaplaincy and student welfare services to determine.

The Commonwealth has decided to waive its right to recover payments that have already been made under the program funding agreements. In reaching this decision, the Commonwealth has given careful consideration to the range of factors that are relevant to the exercise of its power to waive debts owing to it.

The Department of Education will provide further information to schools, funding recipients and education authorities on the decision and its impact on the specific circumstances relating to each provider following further analysis of the decision.

What does the High Court decision mean for the new National School Chaplaincy Programme?

As part of the 2014-15 Federal Budget, the Australian Government allocated $243.8 million over four years to fund the National School Chaplaincy Programme.

Implications of the High Court decision on the future of the programme are being considered.


What does this mean?

It means that the National School Chaplaincy and Student Welfare Program is dead – set adrift by Abbott and his henchmen.

If the current funding arrangements mirror those of 20 June 2012 when the judgement in Williams I was handed down, substantial moneys are due to funding recipients on  30 June. In 2012 that amount was $16.44 million—which triggered the financial amendment bill required to keep the cash flowing to the para-churches.

And, it seems from this missive, that money cannot and will not be paid by the Federal government.

If schools want to keep their chaplains, it’s going to be up to them and the chaplaincy providers to find some way to pay their wages.

The government seems to have no heart for ‘saving legislation’ as occurred in June 2012 after the first Williams decision. The NSCSWP has been deemed unsalvageable. From now until at least 2015, the Federal government has washed its hands off the whole grubby, illegal affair.

What is more important is that,  from 1 July, chaplains will not be subject to the NSCSWP guidelines  – which at least, in theory prevented counselling and proselytising – because this program no longer exists. The terms under which they work will be entirely dependent upon local education policies, individual school’s policies and whatever requirements imposed upon the by bodies like Scripture Union and ACCESS Ministries.

It is notable that the Federal government and the states do not seem to have colluded to continue the program seamlessly by funding it through tied grants. That would have been constitutional via S.96 of the Constitution. But, it requires the states to agree to accept the funding and administer the program. Perhaps that has not happened.

With revelations of proselytising, inappropriate counselling, homophobia and links to homophobic hate groups, and, worse, court actions pending over criminal activities by chaplains the states would be taking on a poisoned chalice in agreeing to take responsibility for school chaplaincy. The funding recipients – particularly ACCESS Ministries – are really ‘on the nose’.

We can only speculate that, if the Federal government tried to anticipate a win for Williams by making arrangements through the states, the states were not as co-operative as the Federal government may have wished – and for good reason!

What the Federal government has now is a quarter of a billion dollar commitment to a new chaplaincy program they cannot administer themselves and for which, at least for now, there are now statutory guidelines.  If funded through tied grants to the states, it will be up to each state to either agree to a single set of guidelines (unlikely!) or to negotiate the terms under which they are prepared to accept the money (messy!).

It can and will never be a ‘national’ program again. Given this, it provides little or no political value for the Federal government and is likely to cause only headaches and political liability to the states.

The allocation of a quarter of a billion dollars to chaplaincy in an austerity budget has caused widespread outrage. Whatever the funding recipients might say, there is clearly very little public support for the program. For example, a poll by the Sydney Morning Herald, following the judgement in Williams’ favour, attracted over 19,000 responses, with 82 per cent of respondents saying the program should now be scrapped completely.

So, for now, school chaplaincy is in limbo. There is no suggestion emanating from the Federal government that they will fund it through the states and we can only speculate on why this rather ‘obvious’ solution hasn’t been implemented. Meanwhile, Abbott and his team have done a Pontius Pilate on the scheme instituted by Howard in 2006 and meddled with by the  Gillard government. It is no more and they have washed their hands of it. Williams has killed it.

Will another chaplaincy scheme arise from the ashes? Perhaps. But it will never be a national scheme and it seems very likely that the Federal government and the states have grown rather weary of this ill-conceived adventure of placing minimally qualified evangelical missionaries into state schools to deal with at-risk, vulnerable kids.

As someone wrote on Facebook recently: Bringing children and churches together – what could go wrong?

Chrys Stevenson


Senator Louise Pratt on School Chaplaincy

Yesterday, Senator Louise Pratt gave a Senate speech calling for an end to the National School Chaplaincy Program.  Senator Pratt drew on information I supplied to LGBTIQ lobby, Allout, and from information which emerged from Allout’s survey about chaplaincy. Here is the text from Hansard.

The High Court’s decision will be handed down tomorrow, Thursday, 19 June at 10am. Ron Williams and I will be in Sydney for the decision.

It remains to be seen how the government will respond to a positive decision for Williams. But it is likely that pressure will need to be placed upon the states not to accept funding for the continuation of this fatally flawed and increasingly politically damaging program. Reason Road has a good run down on the problem and suggestions for ways to campaign against chaplaincy.


Chrys Stevenson




Senator-Louise-Pratt-Labor-AustraliaSenator PRATT (Western Australia) (19:29): I rise this evening to share my concerns in this place about the coalition School Chaplaincy Program. There is in our country a mounting and substantial evidence base that young people, especially young lesbian, gay, bisexual or other gender non-conforming people, are being discriminated against by many school chaplains provided through the national school chaplaincy program. I have worked with school chaplains over the years and I have found them to be well-intentioned people. But I also know about the very real suffering that the anti-gay beliefs that some of them hold can cause LGBT young people, even when no harm is intended.

As we know, LGBT young people are at an extremely disproportionate risk of self-harm, suicide and general feelings of shame and depression compared to non-LGBT youth. These feelings are generated not because there is any wrong with their identity but because of the stigma directed towards them by others. And so, while many young people may have positive chaplain experiences ourselves, we in this place have to listen to what young people tell us, especially our most vulnerable youth.

Last week, the LGBT rights organisation All Out ran a survey inviting Australians to share their stories of school chaplains. Over 2,200 people responded, including over 1,000 high-school students aged 13 to 18. Many of these students came from WA and 15 per cent identified as L, G, B or T. The Australian community has been debating school chaplains for some time, but this is the first time that we have heard from the students themselves, and the stories that they have shared are overwhelming. We have heard dozens of firsthand student accounts that describe chaplains as being explicitly anti-gay. Here is one short excerpt:

My best friend was getting bullied by other students last year for being gay, so went to speak to our school chaplain about it. … He suffers from anxiety and depression, has attempted suicide in the past and occasionally self-harms. He spoke to our chaplain about being bullied and about how he has begun to believe what people are saying about him being a ‘fag’ and ‘a disgusting, gay idiot’. … The chaplain told him that his bullies were right and that homosexuality is a degrading sin that sends people to hell. …. That night I got a phone call from his Mum telling me he had tried to overdose on medicine pills and was in hospital having his stomach pumped.

And here is another:

… this term the Chaplain warned us against … non-marital sex. When I asked him about what a lesbian couple of faith would do if they couldn’t get married, he simply replied that gay and lesbian people could never be proper Christians. … He went on to talk about how … gays and lesbians were … unnatural, indecent and perverse. … this event made me feel as if my sexuality was something to be ashamed of. I consider myself a strong person, and for this to affect me so deeply made me realise the dangers of mixing religion with public education.

It is important to mention that a minority of students—about five to 10 per cent of students in this survey—reported positive experiences with chaplains, including stories of chaplains helping them to overcome self-esteem issues and bullying. Of the 1,000 or so parents and other adults who were part of the survey, about 25 per cent reported positive chaplain experiences, including how chaplains had boosted confidence. However, most of the stories were negative, and almost all of the stories from LGBT young people were negative. As well as the two stories I have just quoted, students described chaplains helping them to ‘pray the gay away’ and advising them to sleep with a member of the opposite sex to ‘correct’ their same sex attraction. One very serious story involved a student being told by a chaplain that they should leave home because they had homosexual parents. The family felt unwelcome at the school and subsequently moved. Many non-Christian students also reported that chaplains had harassed them about adopting religion.

In my years as a senator I have heard countless stories of the challenges that LGBT young people face at school, but even I am overwhelmed by some of the heartbreaking stories that this survey revealed—all breaches of program guidelines and the duty of care owed to these students, a duty of care that these stories demonstrate is being breached, a duty of care that states these services must not be biased on the grounds of religious ideology or sexuality. Extraordinarily, the government has refused to give any assurances that even the current program’s standards and safeguards will be maintained—and this could lead to the rules designed to prevent this kind of proselytising being wound back even further

And this is not even the whole picture. I have also had a few very serious reports passed on to me this week, again stories reported by Western Australian school students who are especially vulnerable because of their sexual orientations. These stories describe chaplains committing serious criminal offences against them. Needless to say, these stories will be further investigated and the children will be connected to the appropriate police and support services, where this has not already happened. But obviously we are dealing with a system that is broken and not working, a system that is failing our most vulnerable youth.

I know some great chaplains. They work with love and authenticity, doing wonderful things for our young people. But on a national level we must face the fact that our chaplaincy program is failing Australian young people. We know this because of a steady accumulation of media investigations revealing everything from the distribution of homophobic ‘biblezines’ in our schools to continuous proselytizing to students, against their parents wishes. We know it because of the findings of the Northern Territory Ombudsman in 2009 and similar findings in 2011 by the Federal Ombudsman. We know it because of the damning reviews of this program by academic experts such as Professor Marion Maddox.

It is extraordinary to me that, in the face of such issues, qualified non-religious youth workers are being pushed out of this program in favour of chaplains. A choice between a chaplain or a youth worker is actually being taken away from schools—schools will now only be able to choose a chaplain. It is extraordinary that a government that has promoted choice and autonomy for our schools is forcing chaplains over youth workers on those schools.

I would also like to highlight that questions have begun to surface about links between Australia’s three biggest school chaplain providers—Access Ministries, Scripture Union Queensland and GenR8 Ministries—and extreme anti-gay movements such as the Lausanne evangelical conference. This conference is well known for its links to anti-gay movements that promote anti-homosexuality laws in African countries—places like Uganda and Nigeria, where we have seen extreme anti-gay laws put forward promoting things like imprisonment and the death penalty.

This week, the High Court will hand down its decision on whether the National Schools Chaplaincy Program is unconstitutional, and I hope that the court will find that the Constitution does indeed prevent the federal government from handing over money to religious providers to put untrained chaplains in our schools—chaplains who, however well intended, are in many cases harming our children.

Regardless of the outcome, it is important to me to see this program stopped. Any person giving counselling to our young people should have the proper qualifications, as recognised by organisations like the Psychological Association, and should not hold discriminatory views. Our young people have told us very clearly that they do not feel safe at school, and it is our job to listen to them and to respond. (Time expired)