It's the second time the program has been struck down by the High Court, delivering the best outcome for Queer youth - but it's not over yet.
The decision today from the High Court to overrule the Government’s school chaplaincy program has the potential to be one of the best policy outcomes for LGBTIQ youth in Australia for years.
Today, the High Court ruled that the funding provisions that financed the chaplaincy program were unconstitutional. The decision will mean that the Federal Government will no longer be able to pay the providers of the program directly.
This however doesn’t necessarily mean the death of the program in its entirety. It could still potentially survive with the Federal Government funding it through state and territory grants. Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews has already said he is still weighing up whether the Government will try and continue the program. Despite reassurances this week from prominent LGBTIQ activists that we can, and should, work within the program, it is up to LGBTIQ activists to ensure this ruling means the death of the program once and for all.
The ruling comes after the release of a survey of students and parents about the chaplaincy program from the LGBTIQ-advocacy group All-Out, which highlighted disturbing evidence about its implementation.
Highlighted by Senator Louise Pratt in Parliament during the week, the survey found that a large majority of parents and LGBTIQ students had reported negative stories of their experiences of the chaplaincy program. Evidence was given of chaplains telling students they should ‘pray the gay away’, advising students to sleep with a member of the opposite sex to ‘correct’ their same-sex attraction and even one story in which a chaplain told a student they needed to leave home because they had homosexual parents.
These findings are highly worrying, but ones we should not be surprised about. Many of the organisations involved in the chaplaincy program are reported to have connections to homophobic campaigns and organisations. This includes the three major chaplain providers in Australia - Access Ministries, the Scripture Union Queensland and GenR8 Ministries - who have ties to the ‘Lausanne Evangelical Conference’, an international anti-gay movement. The program has slowly become dominated by “evangelical missionaries”, with evidence presented that key organisations involved have actively used it as an opportunity to preach to school children.
It is for this reason that it is surprising that some gay activists have come out as champions for the program. Prominent activist Rodney Croome for example recently pointed to evidence that young LGBTIQ people from faith backgrounds are “more likely than others to feel bad about their same sex attraction, more likely to have experienced social exclusion and were more likely to report self harm and suicidal thoughts." He argued that if proper training occurs then “no-one is better placed to reconnect these young people to their families, friends and faith than a school chaplain.”
This argument however fails to capture how destructive this program is.
Even if you take away the obvious homophobic treatment of some students (which is technically not allowed as part of the program) the chaplaincy program is not suitable for our school. Chaplaincy programs do not provide the level of training that should be required of anyone who is working in schools - let alone people who are effectively acting as school counsellors. This is probably best highlighted by the very example that Croome gives. In his piece Croome discussed recent training that occurred in Launceston and Burnie, in which chaplains were trained in the needs of LGBTIQ young people. Whilst this was a nice initiative, it is simply not good enough. Training like this is not some ‘extra curriculum activity’ that those who care about the issue can participate in if they want. Dealing with the complex needs of LGBTIQ students should be considered core to the work of anybody working in a school. Not preaching homophobic views should be considered a core part of the job description of anyone working in any school.
While those preaching these views have technically broken the rules of the program, it should have been clear from day one that this was going to happen. With the radically conservative nature of the groups who are running it, the chaplaincy program has become one of untrained evangelicals masquerading as mental health professionals in our schools. This can only be destructive for our students - LGBTQI or not.
This is where now becomes a critical point in time. The High Court decision gives us an opportunity not just to see the end of this program, but also to outline a better way to provide the services our kids need in our schools. It is now time for us to demand that the Federal and State Governments end this program for good. It is time to insist that funds are instead shifted to provide trained, professional and secular counsellors to support our students.
The evidence of treatment of LGBTQI students by school chaplains released this week should shock us. The idea that state-funded programs are going in to telling students to ‘pray the gay away’ is shameful. But now we have the best opportunity available to us to see this sort of ideology banished from our education system. It is up to us to take it and demand an end to this program for good.