(Technical) victory in Court, failure in Parliament

On 20 June the High Court of Australia decided the federal government’s funding of religious chaplains in public schools was unconstitutional. Shortly after, a bill was rushed through the House and the Senate allowing the federal government to fund programs without legislative scrutiny.

The action that prompted these actions was the Williams v Commonwealth case, which challenged the federal government’s right to fund religious chaplains in public schools, through The National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP).

The NSCP, as described in a previous article ‘Chaplaincy in Australian Public Schools' has been criticised by the Australian Psychological Society, the Australian Guidance and Counsellors Association and parents such as Ron Williams, who brought the case to the High Court. A majority of the criticisms relate to the inadequate qualifications of the chaplains and the legality of religious teaching in public schools.

The High Court’s decision was 6-1 in favour of Ron Williams, based on technical grounds: that the government could not spend money on programs without supporting legislation. As such, the government’s funding of the NSCP was found unconstitutional.

While the decision was welcomed by secular activists, the reasoning behind it disappoints – Williams had also challenged the chaplains program on the basis that s116 of the Australian constitution prohibits a “religious test” for public office, a key clause in the fight for separation of church and state.  The High Court dismissed the claim on that basis and effectively maintained Australia’s non-separation of church and state, a poor position that has endured since the Defence of Government Schools case in 1981.

In response to the High Court’s decision, in just over three hours, a new piece of legislation was rushed through: the Financial Framework Legislation Amendment Bill (No 3) 2012, which gives the federal government the power to fund any program without prior legislation or scrutiny. This new bill will have ramifications not only in regards to the continuing funding of the NSCP, but the process of democracy itself in Australia.

“It was an abject surrender of its [the House of Representatives] powers of financial scrutiny to the Executive, and all in an effort to save a few school chaplains,” said Anne Towmey, Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Sydney. [1]

Despite proposals to limit the remit of the bill, it quickly passed the House and the Senate. There has since been an outcry from commentators in regards to the unconstitutionality of the bill, and the federal government’s disregard for the democratic process.

As a result, on 7 July, Ron Williams announced he would head back to the High Court to recommence proceedings against the Commonwealth. This is now not only a case of upholding the right to secular education but also parliamentary democracy.

If you would like to support Ron William’s High Court Challenge, go to his website and click donate: http://www.highcourtchallenge.com/

[1] The Conversation. http://theconversation.edu.au/bringing-down-the-house-keeping-school-chaplains-means-a-surrender-to-the-executive-7926