LGBTI activists have welcomed the High Court’s decision this morning to uphold a challenge to the National School Chaplaincy Program, ruling that the Commonwealth funding of the program was unconstitutional.

The court found that the Commonwealth had no executive power to fund the program.

“The making of the payments was therefore held to be unlawful,” the court said in a summary judgment.

In the second time the funding arrangements have been challenged in the High Court, Queensland father Ron Williams has won his case over the validity of the laws.

Williams believed there was no place in secular public schools for religious programs.

The program that was initially introduced by the Liberal government in 2006 and extended later by the Labor government funded the chaplaincy program through local organisations.

It was whether a government had the power to fund programs in such a way that became the basis of William’s current challenge.

His first in 2012 resulted in the High Court ruling that the program was not being funded in a lawful way.

States backed Williams in both of his challenges, citing concerns that the Commonwealth was using the arrangements to bypass them.

Following the 2012 ruling, the Federal Government moved to support the program along with over 400 that were potentially affected by the court’s decision.

Schools were the beneficiaries of up to $20,000 each under the program to employ chaplains.

The national body for school chaplains has said it believed the program would survive regardless of the outcome of this morning’s decision through state and territory grants.

The chaplaincy program has drawn particular attention from the LGBTI community, with many saying the program supported the dissemination of anti-gay messages throughout schools and put the wellbeing of young LGBTI people at risk.

The practices of one of the largest providers of chaplains, Access Ministries, became the subject of an investigation of the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development following homophobic and other questionable messages being distributed to students.

The decision to boost funding to the program and scrap financial support for secular counsellors announced in May’s budget was met with criticism that the move that could leave LGBTI students worse off.

In her final speech to the Senate yesterday, outgoing WA Labor Senator Louise Pratt called for the abolition of the program.

“I know some great chaplains — they work with love and authenticity, doing wonderful things for our young people. But on a national level we must face the fact that our chaplaincy program is failing Australian young people,” she said.

“As well as the two stories I have just quoted, students described chaplains helping them to ‘pray the gay away’ and advising them to sleep with a member of the opposite sex to ‘correct’ their same-sex attraction.

“One very serious story involved a student being told by a chaplain that they should leave home because they had homosexual parents… Regardless of the outcome [of the High Court challenge], it is important to see this program stopped.”

One of the four Coalition members who convinced John Howard to start the program, Andrew Laming, said that the legal challenge was “frivolous and futile” and took aim at “gays and atheists”.

“I look directly in the eyes of the loose alliance of Greens, gays and atheists who have mounted this continuous campaign against chaplaincy: you are clearly out of touch,” Laming said.

Sally Richardson, the program director of the Safe Schools Coalition Australia that was recently successful in a push for a national rollout of its LGBTI school program, said that everyone in a role of responsibility and care at a school should look after all students equally.

“The ideal program that we’d like to see is one that sees school staff, including chaplains, step up and guarantee all students a safe and inclusive environment free of homophobia and transphobia,” Richardson told the Star Observer.

“Our expectations are that all staff provide a supportive and caring place where students are able to be themselves whether same-sex attracted, intersex or gender diverse.

“The key point for us is that shouldn’t matter who makes up the staff, the expectations for their behaviour and treatment of students should be the same.”

Australian Marriage Equality national director Rodney Croome iterated sentiments he expressed in an opinion piece on the ABC website earlier this week defending chaplains in schools, saying they can still be beneficial as long as there is specific LGBTI training.

“My concern is that if chaplains are in schools they need to be trained in LGBTI issues. Today’s decision will not affect chaplains funded by the states and by local communities. They still need to be trained,” Croome told the Star Observer.

“If the Federal Government finds a way to continue its funding through the states then those chaplains also need to be trained. I acknowledge the case studies of chaplain homophobia collected by All Out and see it is as further evidence of the importance of training. I will continue to work with chaplaincy providers and LGBTI educators to make sure this training happens as widely and as effectively as possible.”

Despite the outcome of this challenge, the program is still allocated almost $250 million in the 2014 budget to be spent over the next four years.


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