Who wins when two freedoms collide?

For a moment it appeared Elise Chapman, one of the nine councillors on the Greater Bendigo City Council, was auditioning to replace Red Symons in his role as the resident nay-sayer on Hey Hey It’s Saturday. “It must be noted I’m not a fan of many things,” she said last week. “I’d not like to live next door to a cemetery, nightclub, hotel, landfill, abattoir, train station -the list goes on.”

But it was her first nay that placed her squarely in the centre of Bendigo’s fractured social lines: “I wouldn’t want to live near a mosque. Would you?”

Cr Chapman was not alone in voting against planning approval for the city’s first mosque. Fellow councillor Helen Leach argued: “Maybe [the protesters] are looking at the sectarian problems in other capital cities in Australia, and are concerned perhaps that may come to Bendigo.”

The Age is delighted that the remaining seven councillors were not swayed by such arguments and approved the $3 million project.

It is easy to dismiss the arguments of Councillors Chapman and Leach, and of those in Bendigo who protested against the mosque for similar reasons, as being founded on ignorance. Our major cities are not driven by sectarian hatreds, and Islam is not a warrior code that preaches death to all unbelievers. A mosque is a beautiful place, with the same rejuvenating qualities of a church, synagogue or temple: they are places of communal celebration, and the contemplation of shared beliefs that transcend each individual’s daily concerns.

What the debate in Bendigo this past week has demonstrated is the continuing need for education, and the clear imperative to build bridges between communities. We have to accept, as Syria and Iraq degenerate further into civil war, and our own government considers ways of curbing the threat that may be posed by Australian extremists fighting in those countries if they wish to return here, that many in our community have no personal connections to remind them of the fundamental strength of our multi-cultural and multi-faith society.

The Muslim community in Bendigo can take heart from the clear-headed decision-making of its council, and a public rally on Saturday that featured multi-coloured balloons as a direct response to black ones that had appeared in a number of places earlier in the week. Therein lies a greater concern, as revealed by The Age today, that individuals or groups such as the Q Society, which describes itself as “Australia’s leading Islam-critical movement”, have become involved in the issue. Their motivation is one of division and the alienation of a part of our community, and their actions must be exposed and their misinformation challenged at every opportunity.

It is reassuring to see community leaders reacting in definitive terms. Bendigo’s federal member of Parliament, Lisa Chesters, has challenged Cr Chapman over the responsibility that comes with being a community leader. She made the point that Australian citizenship ceremonies clearly emphasise freedom of both speech and religion. “As one of our community’s elected representatives, I am proud to stand up for these values. They define who we are as a nation and as a community.” Police assistant commissioner Jack Blayney, whose responsibilities include Bendigo, has also written in the local newspaper that his officers will be alert at any public event: “Make no mistake; we will investigate racially motivated crimes. Our thinking is simple: if you howl abuse in public places you are not only a fool, you are a menace and will be charged.”

It may not have wished for the role, but Bendigo has now become a golden example of how Australia embraces its diversity and fosters harmony for all its citizens.

From: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/the-age-editorial/who-wins-when-two-fre...

Religion versus the sport blockbuster

The AFL Commission has controversially approved the scheduling of football matches on Good Friday. A sacrilege, a miracle or a goal for multiculturalism? Damon Young and Jill Stark take aim.

Why the fuss over the AFL and Good Friday? Are other public holidays similarly off limits? (Anzac Day isn’t? So is this about specifically Christian sensitivities rather than solemnity and national occasions themselves?)

With Christmas more of a multibillion-dollar festival of consumerism these days than a Christian celebration, Good Friday is arguably the most sacred of all religious holidays. Unlike other public holidays, such as Australia Day, the Queen’s Birthday or Labour Day, there is almost an absolute retail shutdown, lending weight to the sense of spiritual solemnity. Religious leaders have described the move to play footy as a triumph of commercialisation that would trash the cultural importance of a day they feel is the “turning point of all human history”. Expressing his displeasure, Bishop Philip Huggins of the Anglican diocese of Melbourne said: “No doubt if the marketers believed they could sell it, there would be AFL at 3 a.m. on Christmas Day in Madagascar.”

Is the churches’ disapproval of footy on Good Friday a fear of keeping people from attending church, or more about economic activity on a solemn day?

Fewer Australians are going to church, and for some Victorians the blood and chanting of footy will replace the blood and chanting of holy services. No wonder the churches are put out. But their gripes are more than a cynical ploy for market share. For many churchgoers, the community encourages faith and charity, and overcomes loneliness.

As for buying tickets and pies on a holy day, the point is not just the consumerism itself, it’s that yet another chance for quiet reflection is lost. “Business as usual” can stop us asking the big questions about our lives. Having said this, many Victorians with an interest in serious thinking will try to find it in the football; in debates about fairness, duty, loyalty, community and so on, which continue every season. Sport needn’t be stupid or superficial.

What about the “rights” of football fans, many of whom have a religious-like fervour about their team and the game. Should they be considered in the balance?

Fans can be devoted and deluded. This might seem like faith, but it doesn’t make footy religious. Foot-ball, like most sports, can prompt ethical reflection on issues like drug use, commercialisation, and virtues like courage and loyalty. But fandom has very few ethical guidelines, commands or customs. And it lacks the transcendence common to mainstream religions like Christianity. Aussie rules is “religious” only in a metaphorical way.

The question of “rights” makes it seem like a profound conflict of interests; like freedom of religion is up for grabs either way. The people of the book versus the people of the ball. This simply isn’t true. Victorians will still be at liberty to believe in Christ’s death and resurrection, and worship together in church. It just forces believers to reflect on their values. Those who need the service can, like some Jews on the Sabbath, stay away from the oval or screen. Others can watch the game and, like poet Emily Dickinson, keep the Sabbath at home.

Does the linking of the Good Friday charity appeal with the newly scheduled game get around the theological or moral problem?

For some, perhaps. But church service and consumer charity are not the same thing. Participating in the common worship of God might include charity, but it is more about transcendent reverie, moral reflection and community than raising money. The point is not that the Good Friday appeal is a bad thing, but that it is not what Good Friday services are chiefly for. Both might make participants feel good, but not for the same reasons. Put simply, the Good Friday Appeal is, for some traditional Christians, no “get out of guilt free” card.

How is this handled by other sporting codes?

One of the arguments for football on Good Friday is that it is nonsensical for the AFL to cling to a conservative tradition no longer observed by other sporting codes, both in Australia and overseas. Peter Gordon, president of the Western Bulldogs, argues there are deeply religious regions of Italy where soccer is played on the day, and that NFL games are even scheduled in America’s Bible belt. At home, the NRL held its first rugby league match on Good Friday in 1993, with three matches played this year. Soccer, arguably the AFL’s greatest competitor for the sports fan’s dollar, held a Good Friday A-League game between Melbourne Victory and Sydney this year. Perhaps the lack of controversy about that says more about the AFL’s historical position as a community leader on social issues than the religious persuasions of either code’s fans.

So, when will we see the first game; and will it be between the Saints and the Demons?

The AFL Commission has agreed in principle to games being played on Good Friday, with AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan signalling two Good Friday matches, one outside Victoria, could be held as early as next season. With money-spinning blockbuster matches on ANZAC Day and the Queen’s Birthday
already a yearly fixture for powerhouse clubs such as Collingwood and Essendon, the smaller clubs have the most compelling argument to be given a guernsey. North Melbourne has lobbied the longest for the game, and is most likely to match up against the Western Bulldogs. Sydney and Gold Coast have
also pushed their case in recent years.

Jill Stark is a senior reporter. Damon Young is a philosopher, and the author of How to Think About Exercise.

From: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/religion-versus-sport-explaining-afl-g...

Worried about Bendigo mosque? Join the Q

Patrick Hatch

The anti-Islam group that brought controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders to Australia has emerged as a key force behind protests against the building of a mosque in Bendigo.

The goldfields city has faced a surge in anti-Islamic sentiment following last week’s approval of its first mosque. An anonymous group tied black balloons to the house of a local councillor who supported the successful planning application - meant as a warning for those who supported the project.

The Facebook group, “Stop the Mosque in Bendigo,” has had nearly 8000 “likes” and carries material targeting councillors who supported the mosque as “traitors”.

It has now emerged that the Q Society, which describes itself as “Australia’s leading Islam-critical movement”, organised a meeting in Bendigo on 11 May to advise residents how to campaign to stop the mosque. The two-hour meeting was led by Q Society’s president, Debbie Robinson, and Andrew Horwood, the group’s head of media and public relations. Gavin Boby, from Britain’s Law and Freedom Foundation, also spoke at the meeting on video link.

The event, which was attended by about 100 people, was advertised with pamphlets describing Islam as “totalitarian ideology” which brings violence, misogyny, homophobia and economic stagnation wherever it spreads.

Mr Horwood said the Q Society’s role was simply to provide information and leave it up to the local community to take action.

“We offered advice about how Islam is structured and what the effect of the mosque will be in Bendigo,” he said. “We recommended to those involved to write letters to the council and to phone councillors and to become more involved in their community and just spread the message that Islam isn’t good for Australia and a mosque would not be good for Bendigo.”

The Q Society, which has about 1000 members in Australia, organised and funded the 2013 Australian visit by Dutch anti-Islam MP Geert Wilders and, in March, organised an event, called the International Symposium on Liberty and Islam in Australia, in Melbourne.

In 2011, the group organised a petition against Muslims using a community centre in Alma Road, St Kilda East, for Friday prayer. It has also campaigned against halal certification schemes, which it calls a “hidden Islamic tax”.

Bendigo resident Michelle Goldsmith said she was given an anti-Islam pamphlet produced by the Q Society at a rowdy council meeting on Wednesday [18 June], when the $3 million mosque was approved by a vote of 7-2.

The pamphlet, headed “A mosque is not like a church or a temple”, says mosques “are a seat of government, a command centre, a court, and in some cases used as military training centres and arms depots”.

“We need our politicians and lawmakers to recognise Islam as a political entity,” the pamphlet States. “We need to monitor hate speech in mosques given the known seditious nature of Islamic teachings in some mosques.”

Ms Goldsmith said she was shocked by the material in the pamphlets, which several people were handing out at the meeting. “It confirmed my suspicions that these people were being fed hate speech by an outside group. I thought, I’m sure Bendigo’s not like this’, and this was proof.”

The local Stop the Mosque in Bendigo group has remained nameless and faceless throughout the community debate. But Mr Horwood insisted the group was real and not a front for the Q Society.

“They are definitely locals; it’s not outside people,” he said. “No one from that organisation actually wants to speak. They just feel so threatened. They see the media as distorting what they say. They’re scared of that.”

Mr Horwood said the instances of black balloons appearing at properties belonging to mosque supporters were disappointing and inappropriate and his
group was not involved.

Local state MP Jacinta Allan said it was totally unacceptable for people outside of Bendigo to try to swoop in and divide the community.

“Bendigo has a proud history of tolerance and diversity dating back to the gold rush era, and we’ll work hard to preserve and build upon it,” she said.

Bendigo councillor Elise Chapman, one of two councillors who voted against the mosque, said the community had lost focus on what the debate is really about - hundreds of people being denied the chance to speak against the planning application.

“All objectors have a right to object without being labelled as racists and bigots,” she said.

With Steve Lillebuen

From: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/farright-group-spreading-antimosque-me...

World Humanist Day Symposium

Sydney, 20 June, 2014

Enlightenment: The Roots of Humanism

Report by Sam Mason-Smith

I took part in the World Humanist Day Symposium, Sydney, on behalf of the Humanist Society of Victoria, along with represent­atives from other States and the Australian Capital Territory.

The Symposium revolved around a resolution from the Council of Australian Humanist Societies (CAHS) Convention AGM of 2013: "That the Australian Humanist movement adopt the defence and promotion of the values of the Enlightenment as an overarching concept for organising our aims, objectives and programmes."

Dr Victor Bien, of the Humanist Society of New South Wales, led the day's proceedings and introduced the speakers.

David Tribe spoke about "The Enlightenment: Who is Criticising it and Why". The talk explored a brief history of the philosophical schools of thought
that emerged from the Enlightenment, beginning with empiricism and rationalism, as well as various sources of counter-Enlightenment ideas.

Originally, and most notably, Enlightenment values came under attack from organised religion - particularly its traditional, hierarchical forms - which saw its authority being undermined by the "secularisation" of society as ideas of individual freedom and equality came to the fore.

Further criticism is attributed to modern post-Enlightenment movements, such as romanticism and postmodernism. David's talk served to give historical context to Humanism and its connection with the Age of Enlightenment.

Chrys Stevenson gave a talk entitled "Christian Nation? Nonsense on Stilts! How Jeremy Bentham's Humanism Shaped Australia". She talked about how
English moral philosopher Jeremy Bentham's views on government, individual rights and human welfare influenced the laws, institutions and national
identity of Australia.

The extent of Bentham's intellectual legacy in Australia is evident in our legislation, our democratic system, our educational system and our modern welfare state.

Chrys explained how this history contradicts the emphasis placed on our supposed Christian heritage by the likes of Fred Nile, Tony Abbott and others on the religious right wing of Australian politics, and encouraged us to reclaim the Benthamite narrative of our history.

Dr Meredith Doig gave a presentation on "Reason versus Emotion: Key Drivers in the History of Moral Progress". Through the study of human psychology,
Meredith explained, we have learnt that our reason is indeed a "slave of the passions", as Hume would put it, and that emotion prevails over reason in
human decision-making.

As there is much less energy involved in automatic, impulsive and emotion-driven (Type I) thinking than in deliberate, calculating and reason-driven thinking (Type II thinking), people tend to favour the former.

She spoke of the value of Type II thinking and the continuing, need to promote reason - not as something separate from and opposed to emotion, but
as something that can be used to achieve progress and to further the causes of which our higher emotions approve.

Professor Frank Stilwell discussed the topic "The Enlightenment, Political Economy and Modern Society". He explored how the various principles identified with Humanism and the Enlightenment have been called upon to support a number of economic and political positions, often in strong and intractable opposition to one another.

Beginning with Scottish political economist Adam Smith of "Invisible Hand" fame, political economists and philosophers over the last 250 years or so have been engaged in a contest of ideas about how to address the problems faced by society as a whole.

This legacy is threatened to this day by economic insecurity, social inequality and ecologically unsustainable development - issues which Frank said may need to be addressed by a "new Enlightenment".

Dr Ian Ellis-Jones spoke last, giving a talk entitled "A Rational Faith: Humanism, Enlightenment Ideals, and Unitarianism". He spoke from his perspective as a Unitarian minister and former president of the Humanist Society of NSW.

Ian spoke of the history of Unitarianism, which has progressed over two centuries from a denomination of Christianity to a progressive, post-Christian "meta-religion", influenced by and influencing Humanism in the process (many of the signatories of the Humanist Manifesto were Unitarian ministers). He spoke of Unitarians' embrace of Enlightenment values and ideas from traditions outside of Christianity, including Buddhism. In the words of the Buddha, "Believe only what you yourself judge to be true".

To conclude the symposium, all of the speakers and State representatives gathered for a panel discussion of current issues including the recent Federal Budget and the National School Chaplaincy Program.

Returning to the theme of the symposium, we discussed the contribution of the Age of Enlightenment to Humanism, but also how Humanism goes beyond
the values of that era by drawing on earlier and more recent schools of thought.

Our discussion benefited greatly from the philosophical, political, economic and scientific perspectives presented by the various speakers. Although we did not reach a strong conclusion regarding the 2013 CAHS resolution, hopefully all those in attendance went away, as I did, with a much deeper understanding of the Age of Enlightenment and its connection with Humanism.

Several of the talks mentioned above have been posted on the Humanist Society of South Australia's YouTube channel at the following URL:

From: http://vichumanist.org.au/enlightenment-roots-humanism/

Showdown over chaplains in schools

Jewel Topsfield - Education Editor

The federal government faces a show-down with some states over whether to allow schools to appoint secular welfare workers instead of chaplains in the wake of the High Court decision invalidating the existing funding agreement.

Schools across the nation, including Greensborough Primary School in [metropolitan] Melbourne, fear they will be forced to sack non-religious welfare workers after the Abbott government announced in the budget that only chaplains would be funded under the program from next year.

But the federal government will now have to grant the $245 million directly to the states and territories, and the Australian Capital Territory and South Australian governments have already flagged schools should be able to choose if they wish to appoint secular welfare workers or chaplains.

The Victorian and New South Wales governments said it was too early to comment. But the Victorian opposition said it would push for the chaplaincy program to include non-religious welfare workers if Labor won the November state election.

“If we have to have a fight with the Commonwealth over that, we will fight with the Commonwealth over that,” said opposition education spokesman James Merlino.

University of Sydney constitutional law professor Anne Twomey said the Commonwealth could impose conditions on state grants, such as that it be used only for religious chaplains.

“A state could refuse to accept a grant that was subject to such a condition,” Professor Twomey said. “It would then be a matter for negotiation between the Commonwealth and the state as to whether the Commonwealth would alter its condition or whether the state would accept or refuse the grant.”

Greensborough Primary School is distressed it will lose its student welfare worker, Emma Bevan, at the end of the year after the Abbott government axed an option put in place by Labor to allow schools to employ a secular wellbeing officer instead of a chaplain.

“Many families didn’t want chaplains to work with children because they were fundamentally opposed to the religious issues,” said principal Angela Morritt.

She said Ms Bevan, who is also a child psychologist, assisted students and parents with the transition from kinder to prep and primary to secondary school, ran a meditation group, helped with parenting strategies, referred students to other services and provided grief counselling.

Ms Bevan had also established the “friendship tree”, staffed by year six student wellbeing leaders, who read books and played with other children.

“The benefits have been overwhelming: Emma has a multi-disciplinary approach and has provided support to students, staff and parents,” Ms Merritt said.

“Our community was enormously distressed when they found out in the budget because they want to keep the student welfare worker.”

Maureen Hartung, the executive director of Blue Gum School in Canberra, tweeted politicians after the High Court decision asking: “If $s go via state/territory govts, can/will you reintroduce non-religious option?”

Ms Hartung said she found it insulting that secular schools like Blue Gum were forced to employ chaplains under the program. “We’ve got Jewish families; why should they be forced to have chaplains?”

ACT Education Minister Joy Burch said the territory’s position was clear that it wanted the program opened to secular workers. “To me, it goes to school choice. It’s the school principal and the school board that know their community best.”

South Australian Education Minister Jennifer Rankine said: “I would strongly support a return to the previous model where schools were able to access secular social workers.”

From: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/showdown-looms-over-chaplains-in-...

Bendigo fights racism

Aisha Dow

An anti-racism campaign led by Christian leaders is gathering force in Bendigo [Victoria], in response to anti-Islamic protesters vocally opposing a mosque project.

The protesters claim the $3 million mosque approved for East Bendigo could result in a terrorist attack, and have targeted supporters by tying black balloons outside their homes and offices.

But embarrassed local residents say these views do not represent them and on Friday [20 June] began an online petition supporting multiculturalism and diversity in Bendigo.

On Saturday morning [today] they will hold a rally, where hundreds of colourful balloons will be passed out with the tag “racism has no place in Bendigo”.

From: http://www.smh.com.au/national/colouful-balloons-to-support-multicultura...

Throwing book at religious study

Alexandra Smith

Ron Williams, a jazz singer and father of six, took on God and won.

The Queensland man can quote, almost verbatim, the press conference from 2006 when the former prime minister John Howard announced a national
school chaplaincy program. It riled him then, and it does now.

With four children at a public school in Toowoomba, Mr Williams was outraged that religious teaching in state schools could be funded by the
federal government.

But after years of letter writing and complaints to two federal education ministers, Mr Williams had had enough and he took the government
to the High Court.

It marked the beginning of a David and Goliath battle that Mr Williams would win, not once but twice.

Almost exactly two years ago, Mr Williams won his first High Court challenge against the chaplaincy program when six of its seven judges
ruled that it exceeded the Commonwealth’s executive spending powers under the constitution.

Just days later, the Gillard government rushed through new laws to include 427 grants and programs it could fund without legislation,
including drought assistance and counter-terrorism measures, amounting to between 5 and 10 per cent of Commonwealth expenditure. It did not end
there. The next day, it paid the Scripture Union of Queensland more than $6.2 million, $11,000 of which went to Mr Williams’s children’s school to
run its chaplaincy program.

Mr Williams’s latest case challenged the constitutional validity of this law. The musician’s legal bills have mounted - he estimates they are close to $300,000 - but much of the funding for his legal challenges has been donated by like-minded parents and individuals who support his push to stop the government funding an “overtly religious” program.

Costs have been awarded to him after both challenges, but he says he will still be out of pocket.

“My support base has helped me so much, financially and with moral support,” he said. “My cases weren’t about having chaplains taken out of
schools, but questioning the right of a federal government or even a state government to fund programs such as this in public schools.”

Court curtails executive powers

What does the national school chaplaincy program do?

The role of chaplains is to support the emotional wellbeing of school students. The National School Chaplaincy Association says chaplains are in
the “prevention and rescue business” and help young people deal with issues ranging from family breakdown to drug abuse.

The association says school chaplains encourage reflection on the “spiritual dimensions of life” and have an “educative role” in morals,
values, ethics and religion. But it stresses that chaplains are available to students of all faiths and must respect the range of views and affiliations
in schools.

What did Ron Williams argue?

In Mr Williams’s first High Court challenge, he successfully argued that the Commonwealth’s direct funding for school chaplains went beyond the
Commonwealth's executive powers. The then Labor government changed an existing law, giving itself power to fund an open list of about 427 things,
including school chaplains.

In his latest challenge, Mr Williams argued that this law was invalid, and that the payment to chaplains was beyond the Commonwealth’s powers and
had not “validly been authorised by legislation”.

What did the High Court decide?

It decided the law was invalid for the Commonwealth’s funding agreement with the Scripture Union of Queensland for school chaplains, because
chaplaincy services did not fall under the Commonwealth’s power to make laws that provide “benefits to students”.

From: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/ron-williams-took-...

Feelings run high on mosque

Richard Willingham, Steve Lillebuen [and] Aisha Dow

Mysterious black balloons have been tied to a sign outside the house of a local councillor, as well as to railings outside the local newspaper office, as Bendigo [Victoria] confronts a surge of anti-Islamic sentiment following the green light for the city’s first mosque.

And the Muslim community, estimated to be about 200 in a population of 110,000, have privately expressed safety concerns since a heated council meeting on Wednesday night [18 June] approved the planning for a mosque.

Many community leaders suspect much of the crowd were not from Bendigo, have links to other anti-Islamic groups in Australia, and came to town to cause trouble.

They said they were disgusted and embarrassed by some of the anti-Muslim rhetoric being expressed, especially in a town that had a proud history of multiculturalism.

On Thursday, Cr Mark Weragoda found black balloons tied to the front of his home and business. The balloons first appeared in Bendigo a month ago. An anonymous group say the black balloons are a symbol linking the prevalence of domestic violence to the growing Islamic community in the region, with the balloons tied to items associated with those who accept Islam into the city.

Cr Weragoda, who migrated from Sri Lanka to Bendigo in 1975 when he was 14, said the council meeting was the first time he had really felt hatred against multiculturalism.

Whenever he spoke to the council on Wednesday, protesters played Middle Eastern music.

He said the balloons did not worry him and he felt sorry for the uninformed “minority” group who opposed the mosque on social grounds. There were “bad eggs” in every society, he said.

The mosque is planned for undeveloped industrial land in East Bendigo, but is next to houses.

Two councillors, Helen Leach and Elise Chapman, voted against the mosque.

Cr Chapman said she shared community concerns about terrorism.

“I’d be concerned,” she told Fairfax Media. “I wouldn’t want to live next door to a mosque, would you?”

Cr Leach said she was not anti-Muslim, but many local residents had raised concerns.

“Maybe they [the protesters] are looking at the sectarian problems in other capital cities in Australia and are concerned perhaps that may come to Bendigo,” she told [Radio] 3AW.

The fate of the mosque is likely to face a legal battle with some angry residents demanding to know what “safety measures” had been taken to prevent crime and terrorism in the regional centre.

A Facebook page “Stop the Mosque in Bendigo” has attracted almost 7500 “likes”. On Thursday, posted on the page was a mocked-up image of the council’s logo, modified to read “the City of Grovelling Bendigo welcomes terrorists, paedophiles [and] rapists”.

The mosque, funded by the Australian Islamic Mission, attracted more than 350 objections, most on religious grounds, including fears about Sharia law.

From: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/legal-challenge-looms-over-bendigo-mos...

Courts $243.5m in state grants needed to continue program

Jane Lee, Benjamin Preiss [and] Matthew Knott

The Abbott government will have to grant $243.5 million to state and territory governments to continue its national schools chaplaincy program after a Queensland father successfully challenged its funding in the High Court.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott reaffirmed his commitment to the program within hours of the High Court’s unanimous decision that federal funding for school chaplains via the Scripture Union of Queensland was unlawful.

Without detailing how the Coalition would fund the program, Mr Abbott said “[we] very much support it and we want it to continue”.

Queensland father Ron Williams - who won his initial challenge against the program two years ago, then again on Thursday - says there is no place
in public schools for non-secular programs.

In the May budget, the Abbott government allocated $243.5 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.

Four of Mr Williams’s children attend a Queensland school that receives federal funding for chaplains. He said the decision was a huge win for the “silent majority of parents” against the program.

University of Sydney constitutional law professor Anne Twomey said the federal government would be able to continue the pro-gram only by providing grants to state governments rather than directly to chaplains. “This is the only real option. They can do that, and they probably will,” she said.

While the judgment will have a limited effect beyond the program, Professor Twomey said it was still a “slap down” for the federal government.

“This is a reminder from the High Court that the Commonwealth . . . cannot spend money on whatever it likes.” National School Chaplaincy Association secretary Peter James said the group expected the Commonwealth to put in place “an alternative funding solution”, which could be a system of grants.

“With . . . bipartisan support for the program, I’m confident that some form of funding will be put in place,” he said.

Mr James said funding was guaranteed until December, but the government would probably need to make changes to the program so money could flow next

Australian Education Union Victorian branch president, Meredith Peace, said she was opposed to the chaplaincy program in schools.

“I think the decision provides a real opportunity for government to redirect the funding to where it is most needed,” she said, referring to “qualified professionals” such as speech therapists and psychologists, as well as to support children with disabilities.

Parents Victoria executive officer Gail McHardy said some schools would be anxious about the future of the program, but, “Parents Victoria wants our schools to have the flexibility to choose and allocate government funding for trained secular counsellors.”

Philip Simpson, a chaplain at Blackburn Primary School, said he provided support to students, their families and teachers.

“I love the fact that every day I’m there, I can make a difference,” he said.

From: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/high-court-school-...

Department won’t support religious instruction

Benjamin Preiss

The [Victorian] Education Department does not endorse the content of the controversial religious instruction program in state Schools, the latest parental consent form says.

The new form, issued to schools on Tuesday [17 June], will now list the name of the volunteer instructor and their religious affiliation.

The form stresses that special religious instruction (SRI) does not provide an overview of all faiths. It said the instruction may include scriptural studies and how to live and behave “according to the tenets of the particular faith”.

“Given the religious nature of the program, the De0partment of Education and Early Childhood Development does not endorse program content used to deliver SRI by accredited volunteer instructors,” the form said.

“Schools are obliged to provide parents with this form if approached by an accredited and approved SRI volunteer.”

Principals can decide whether they are able to offer religious instruction at their school once parents have returned the forms.

The form said the religions available to schools would vary.

State school principals must offer religious instruction when accredited instructors indicate they are available.

An Education Department spokesman said the form made clear that special religious instruction should not be confused with general religious education.

Fairness in Religions in Schools campaign co-ordinator Lara Wood said the new form was a “huge improvement”.

The main provider of Christian instruction in Victoria, Access Ministries, did not respond to Fairfax Media’s questions by deadline.

From: http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/department-distances-itself-from-relig...

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