Yesterday, the High Court of Australia handed down a decision declaring that the funding of the school chaplaincy program by the federal government was invalid.
You can read the full decision here, but I doubt you’re going to want to. It is very long and quite legally technical, as most court decisions are. Though there is a quick “Q and A” of all the application points in italics at the beginning of the judgment.
The challenge made by way of application to the highest court in the land was made by a Toowoomba father, Ronald Williams, who sends his seven children to Darling Heights High School in the region. He objected to any “religious missionary” being placed in public schools and argued that the program was unconstitutional.
The program, introduced in 2006 by the Howard government was amended by Labor to include funding for either a school chaplain or a secular student welfare officer.
The High Court found the receipt of federal funding by the Scripture Union of Queensland (“SUQ“) were not supported by s61 of the constitution (about executive power).
SUQ is the organisation that provided chaplaincy services in Queensland. An exert from the judgment shows some details of the company constitution:
It is designated in its Constitution as “the Mission”. Its objects are “to make God’s Good News known to children, young people and their families” and “to encourage people of all ages to meet God daily through the Bible and prayer”. In furtherance of these objects, SUQ shall “undertake … a variety of specialist ministries”, “shall preach the need of true conversion and of holiness in heart and life” and “shall aid the Christian Church in its ministries.” Williams v Commonwealth of Australia  HCA 23 at 
The Court commented:
For the reasons that follow, s 61 does not empower the Commonwealth, in the absence of statutory authority, to contract for or undertake the challenged expenditure on chaplaincy services in the Darling Heights State School. That conclusion depends upon the text, context and purpose of s 61 informed by its drafting history and the federal character of the Constitution. It does not involve any judgment about the merits of public funding of chaplaincy services in schools. It does not involve any conclusion about the availability of constitutional mechanisms, including conditional grants to the States under s 96 of the Constitution and inter-governmental agreements supported by legislation, which might enable such services to be provided in accordance with the Constitution of the Commonwealth and the Constitutions of the States. Williams v Commonwealth of Australia  HCA 23 at 
Basically, the Court declined to make any judgment about the merit of a school chaplaincy program being funded by the federal government. However, they found that executive power of the Commonwealth doesn’t extend to allow the federal government to enter into contracts and spend federal money relating to any subject matter that falls within a head of Commonwealth legislative power.
So the key is the issue of funding, and relying on executive power to fund a program provided in state education by a religious based corporation. Not the federal government funding the chaplaincy program per se, but the power that was relied upon to fund it. It’s an incredibly important decision and will have far reaching implications into federal government funding.
The government has indicated that they will continue to fund the school chaplaincy program. They just won’t be able to rely on the s61 power to do so.
For more information, read about it on ABC here.
What do you think? Do you think that the decision was right? Do you agree with government funded school chaplaincy programs?