Comment: Kids take a backseat to ideology as chaplaincy program escapes budget emergency

(AAP)

We were told there was a budget emergency - so why is there still money for the National School Chaplaincy Program, which is not without its flaws?

I am not an economist, mathematician, money expert, accountant or Scrooge McDuck with a stash of coins I swim in every day (sadly).

In fact, out of all the things in the world I don’t understand (besides the appeal of licorice), maths and numbers confuse me most. Because of this, it is not that uncommon for me to be a bit perplexed around budget time in Australia, but I have never been more baffled than with the release of this year’s budget.

Before the release, Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott described Australia’s financial situation as a ‘budget emergency’. Imagine my bewilderment when the budget details were released and $245 million dollars had somehow been found in the ‘break only in an emergency’ piggybank (I guess) to invest in the National School Chaplaincy Program.

What about the kid bullied for being Muslim (when 98% of the chaplains are Christian)? What about the student struggling with drug use, the teenage girl who wants to go on birth control or deal with an unwanted pregnancy? Are the chaplains as qualified as youth workers to deal with disadvantaged kids, or kids suffering mental health issues?

Both experts and non-experts alike would be puzzled as to why this particular scheme isn’t seen as something that could be cut in a budget crisis.

The chaplaincy program was created by John Howard, and expanded under Labor, who added the option for schools to choose a non-religious student welfare worker as an alternative to a chaplain. Along with the increased funding announcement, the government also decided to remove this option for schools going forward – meaning that schools can hire chaplains from a range of different faiths, but they can no longer be secular

And why has the government taken this step to weaken the secular tradition of public schools? Why has a government that claims to value choice taken away a principal or a parent’s vote in how their young people are supported?

If parents desperately want their children to have faith-based support, wouldn’t they 1) do it themselves, 2) send their children to a religious school or 3) send them to church?

This is a worrying government decision based on religious ideology. The idea that public schools should have a chaplaincy program at all is worthy of argument, especially considering the so-called ‘budget emergency’.

The fact that the government has removed the option to choose a secular support worker instead is ludicrous. But we are told we shouldn’t be worried, as the rules of the program state that the chaplains are forbidden from teaching religious education or proselytizing to students.

So obviously we shouldn’t worry that the Scripture Union Queensland (who provide the most chaplains to Queensland schools) says, “Chaplaincy places a high value on spirituality and as such, is an expression of truly holistic Youth Work practice, valuing the place of spirituality in the lives of young people and maximising the benefits of positive spirituality for their overall wellbeing.” This isn’t a miracle; there is no doubt that the chaplains are there to give support using their religious belief as a basis for the unique care they provide.

If this weren’t the case, if their religion isn’t integral, then why are they there, and why would anyone think it a sensible idea to replace the (probably) more qualified youth workers with them? Their faith might help them with fixing students’ spiritual wellbeing, but their faith might also irreparably damage students’ wellbeing in other ways.

ACCESS Ministries, which provides chaplains in Victoria, came under scrutiny earlier this year when a “Biblezine” was distributed to Year 6 students at Torquay College, advising children to seek counseling if they had homosexual feelings. The General Manager of Development and Communications at ACCESS Ministries happens to be Rob Ward, a former Victorian State Director of the Australian Christian Lobby. Mr Ward has himself made anti-gay public statements in the past. The Director of Your Dream, who run chaplaincy programs in NSW, has strong ties to Hillsong, who also have a past with anti-gay organisations.

Support workers at schools are sometimes the only people a troubled child can turn to. What about the young man who goes to a school in a rural area, who is struggling with his sexuality, who is convinced his parents and friends will hate him if they found out he is gay?

Young gay or lesbian people are six times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Along with this, about 80% of the bullying and discrimination they face occurs in school settings.

Would that young man go to a youth worker if he had nowhere else to turn? It’s possible. Will he turn to a chaplain? I’m not so sure. And if he does turn to a chaplain, say one provided by ACCESS Ministries, what kind of advice would he get? Would it be advice that would comfort him, make him feel like he is okay in the world? The instant this amendment to the program was announced, I immediately thought of the young people in that situation. The feeling of fear, the feeling of loneliness, the feeling that you are defective; would a chaplain help ease those?

What about the kid bullied for being Muslim (when 98% of the chaplains are Christian)? What about the student struggling with drug use, the teenage girl who wants to go on birth control or deal with an unwanted pregnancy? Are the chaplains as qualified as youth workers to deal with disadvantaged kids, or kids suffering mental health issues?

I would like to know how (the probably well-meaning and nice) chaplains could support them without their religious beliefs interfering, or disapproval and judgment coming through. The change to the program seems to be based purely on ideology, not based on what is best for our young people, and definitely not based on the most effective ways to support them.

And if that decision results in harm to even one of them, it will have been an appalling and unnecessary failure. 

Rebecca Shaw is a Brisbane-based writer and host of the fortnightly comedy podcast Bring a Plate.

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