Tony Abbott to keep secular workers out of school chaplaincy program

The Abbott government is poised to announce a revamped school chaplaincy program, with funding restricted to religious workers, in a bid to circumvent two High Court rulings that the program is constitutionally invalid.

Fairfax Media can reveal the scheme was discussed  by cabinet on Monday and that a decision is all but finalised.

In a bid to prevent another High Court challenge, the federal government will direct funding to state and territory governments rather than to chaplain providers.

Tony Abbott. Picture: JONATHAN NG

Tony Abbott. Picture: JONATHAN NG

Cabinet explored extending the $244 million scheme to include funding for secular welfare workers - reflecting an acknowledgment among ministers that the issue is politically sensitive. This option would have reversed the government's existing policy that funding should be restricted to religious chaplains.

During the cabinet discussion, Prime Minister Tony Abbott argued that the government should stand by its existing policy. Mr Abbott argued the scheme's original intent was supporting pastoral care in schools and that should remain its focus.

No major further changes are expected to the program, as it has now been designed, before it comes back to and is approved by the cabinet.

At the same cabinet meeting, Liberal Party officials reportedly told ministers to tighten their focus, with "no more distractions", "no more ideology" and an instruction to "stick to the middle".

The chaplaincy scheme was also raised in the Coalition party room on Tuesday, where at least two government members argued the scheme should be broadened to include funding for secular workers.

The chaplaincy scheme was introduced by the Howard government in 2006. Labor expanded the scheme to include secular workers in 2011 – an option the government scrapped in this year's budget.

The High Court ruled the scheme invalid in June because the legislation underpinning it was not supported by a specific head of constitutional power – a decision that threw the fate of hundreds of government grants and programs into doubt.

The High Court also struck down the scheme in 2011.

Both cases were brought forward by Toowoomba father Ron Williams, a secularist opposed to public funding for religious workers in public schools.

Labor and the Greens both oppose restricting the chaplaincy scheme to religious workers.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said in June: "Labor certainly does not support restricting chaplains to just religious organisations.

"We think this is taking the education system down the wrong track."

SMH

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