The Canberra Times reports that 208 schools around Australia have decided to replace religious chaplains with secular welfare workers instead under the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP). That’s awesome news. The not-so-awesome bit however is that 2236 schools, or 89 percent of schools, are sticking with religious chaplains in their reapplication for NSCP funding.
It looks like the government has considered the “strong feedback” (read “criticism”) on the NSCP’s religious bias, so they have extended the program to include qualified secular welfare workers. This is something that secularists should celebrate, even if the initial uptake of secular welfare workers in schools is modest. In my home state of Victoria only 16 percent of schools with government-funded chaplains have said they would prefer to have secular welfare workers. There’s definitely room for improvement.
While we should welcome the inclusion of secular welfare workers in the NSCP, the point remains that religion should not receive special government favour. Taxpayers should not be forced to fund ideologies that make supernatural, unsubstantiated claims, that reject science, that encourage divisiveness and cultural insularity, and that in their more toxic forms promote prejudice and bigotry. In fact, forcing Australian citizens to indirectly support the religious indoctrination of schoolchildren may be unconstitutional. One such citizen, Ron Williams, took legal action against the NSCP last year, a case that went to the High Court where it still awaits a decision.
Overall, this perhaps isn’t the best news for Australian secularism. But at least the Gillard government is taking criticisms of the NSCP into consideration. Hopefully those percentage figures of schools opting for secular welfare workers over chaplains will continue to rise.