Chaplaincy faces religious test
The school chaplains program has been labelled discriminatory.
A legal case is testing the requirement that potential employees of Access Ministries - one of the main groups providing pastors in schools - must be Christian.
The case before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) involves a candidate who worked as a chaplain in three schools, including a Catholic school, but was barred from applying from other positions because she was not Christian.
The complaint alleges Access Ministries advertised employment opportunities but discriminated against applicants that lack religion.
“The discrimination is not reasonably necessary for Access Ministries to comply with the doctrines, beliefs or principles of the religion associated with Access Ministries, because the work of a school chaplain takes place in a non-religious context and workplace, namely a government school, with a student population made up of students with a variety of religious affiliations and with no religious affiliation,” the complaint reads.
“The work of a school chaplain is non-religious. As Justice Heydon explained in Williams v Commonwealth the work described could have been done by persons who met a religious test. It could equally have been done by persons who did not.”
The Victorian Department of Education and Training is named in the complaint too, alleged to have “requested, instructed, induced, encouraged, authorised or assisted” Access Ministries and its employment criteria.
VCAT was asked to reach a decision that will stop potential applicants for the chaplaincy program from being discriminated against.
The case could have significant repercussions on the controversial program.
Associate Prof Luke Beck, a specialist in religious freedom and separation of church and state issues, says Access Ministries could find itself in trouble.
“State anti-discrimination law prohibits discrimination against job applicants based on religion just as much as it prohibits discrimination against job applicants based on sex or race,” he told The Guardian.
“Advertising a job and saying only people from one particular religion may apply is unlawful discrimination. That’s what’s going on with school chaplain job ads. That’s what Access Ministries has done.
“The high court has previously said there is no good reason why school chaplains should be religious. School chaplains provide non-religious student welfare services.
“If the case succeeds, the practical outcome will be that school chaplain jobs will need to be open to all qualified applicants regardless of religious belief. Religious discrimination is wrong. This case seeks to vindicate that important principle.”