The government is eager to help pay for clergymen to teach pupils Christian values. Geoff Maslen reports
The Australian government is to call on every state school to employ a full-time chaplain and is expected to match money raised voluntarily by school communities to cover the cost.
MPs gave the proposal a warm reception when it was presented to them last week.
Education minister Julie Bishop has backed the plan for a chaplain in every school. She said that parents were looking for choice in the education and values taught to their children and that the idea was consistent with the national framework for values education in schools.
Chaplains provide a Christian presence as well as pastoral care and counselling, according to the Council for Christian Education in Schools which appoints them in co-operation with schools.
Chaplains help students to explore world views, spirituality, faith and ethics, but respect the right of individuals to hold their own views, according to the council. They also encourage Christian-based school groups, promote prayer and provide a link to local churches.
But the Australian Education Union opposes the scheme, which one union official described as "sickening".
Chris Pearce, parliamentary secretary to the treasurer, said students needed a chaplain's support. He is involved with a major chaplaincy programme for government schools in his electorate, all funded by donations from parents, community, business and church groups.
"I know of real-life examples where chaplains have made a significant difference to the lives of children," he said.
Since 1955, a few schools in the state of Victoria have employed chaplains.
The Council for Christian Education in Schools is formally recognised as the body managing the chaplaincy programme in Victoria.
Similar programmes exist in most other states, but function largely without state or federal government funding.
Jenny Macklin, the Labor opposition education spokeswoman, said that although she supported the proposal, it had to take into account the diversity of religious beliefs in schools.
The Australian constitution says that the "Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance". This would appear to prohibit federal government funding. But in 1981, the High Court ruled that the phrase did not rule out commonwealth spending on religious education and that this was constitutionally permitted.
Nahum Ayliffe, a youth worker with the Uniting Church in Australia, said government funding for chaplains was overdue.
"Chaplains perform a vital role supporting the overworked welfare staff in state schools, and the three chaplains with whom I have worked are the furthest from God-botherers that I know," he said.
Mr Ayliffe said that the programme was not "religious Republican mimicry" and secular Australians would not tolerate it if it were. To attract funding, chaplains were required to be working in a multifaith, secular community.