By Jane Lee and Matthew Knott
The Abbott government remains committed to the national school chaplains program, despite a High Court ruling in favour of a Queensland father who challenged federal funding for the scheme.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said the government was considering the High Court verdict, but continued to back the program, which was established by the Howard government and continued under the Labor Rudd/Gillard governments.
”This is a policy that was invented by the Coalition. It was supported by the Coalition. It was confirmed by the Coalition. So we very much support it and we want it to continue,” he told reporters in Canberra on Thursday.
”We’ve only just got this judgment. We’ll carefully study the judgment and we’ll make an appropriate response after we’ve made that study.”
The challenge to federal funding of the scheme was launched by Ron Williams, who says there is no place in public schools for non-secular programs.
The decision could undermine the federal government’s recent decision to allocate $245.3 million to continue running the chaplaincy program for another five years.
That funding was intended specifically for schools to hire faith-based chaplains rather than social workers.
Under the program, 3700 schools are eligible for up to $72,000 funding to employ chaplains.
In a unanimous decision, six judges on the High Court held that the federal government’s agreement to fund the Scripture Union of Queensland to provide chaplaincy services to Queensland schools was unlawful.
Four of Mr Williams’ children attend a Queensland school that receives federal funding for chaplains.
Mr Williams said the decision was a huge win for the ”silent majority of parents” around the country who opposed the chaplaincy program.
”I think we can call this a 6-nil clobbering,” Mr Williams said.
He said that he had been ”gobsmacked” when the federal government funded the program in the recent budget while ”slashing education and health”.
State grants an ‘option’ to fund chaplains program
Sydney University constitutional law professor Anne Twomey said on Wednesday that the federal government would be able to continue the chaplaincy program by providing grants to state governments rather than directly to schools.
”This is the only real option. They can do that and they probably will,” she said.
National School Chaplaincy Association secretary Peter James said the High Court decision was disappointing but he welcomed Mr Abbott’s support for the program.
”Having ruled out the current funding model, we now look to the Commonwealth to put in place an alternative funding solution,” he said.
”That could well be a system of grants via the states and territories – an alternative which the High Court acknowledged was possible in 2012 and again in the course of this hearing … [W]ith the government behind the program and, in fact, bipartisan support for the program I’m confident that some form of funding will be put in place.”
Mr James said funding was guaranteed until December but the federal government would probably need to make changes to the program so money could flow next year.
The case targets a law that allows funding of a wide range of programs that comprise up to 10 per cent of federal expenditure, including accommodation for asylum seekers offshore, the national counterterrorism committee, ”Gallipoli-related activities” and ”cybersafety”.