A group of humanist societies has demanded that the Australian Human Rights Commission review the $60m-a-year school chaplains program, claiming it harms freedom of religion.
The secular and atheist groups wrote to the AHRC president, Rosalind Croucher, requesting a review on the basis that only religious people can be hired for the roles despite the fact that pastoral care is non-religious.
The Rationalist Society of Australia president, Meredith Doig, told Guardian Australia the program is “blatantly discriminatory” and the group had mobilised after a push by Luke Howarth and dozens of other Coalition MPs to expand the program.
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The chaplains program was introduced by John Howard, continued by Labor governments, and was granted $245m in the 2014 budget by the Abbott government.
Howarth wants the program at least extended in the 2018 budget but ideally expanded, citing the fact that chaplains only receive $20,000 a year compared with the minimum wage of $45,000. Chaplains generally work part-time or schools fundraise to extend their hours.
Howarth told Guardian Australia he has asked the treasurer and education minister for a 25% pay increase to $25,000 a year because the 800 chaplains in Queensland doing “a fantastic job” have not had a pay rise since the program’s inception.
The humanist societies have asked Croucher to set up an inquiry into the program on the basis it “may be inconsistent with or contrary to” a human right. The complaint argues the program “interferes with the right to religious freedom and involves religious discrimination in hiring decisions”.
It notes the criteria for the program include that a school chaplain be a person who “is recognised through formal ordination, commissioning, recognised religious qualifications or endorsement by a recognised or accepted religious institution”.
“This selection criterion amounts to requiring a person be religious. It excludes non-religious people from working as school chaplains.”
Despite the religious affiliation implied by the name “chaplains”, the complaint argues their work is “entirely non-religious” and could equally be performed by people who are not religious.
In a 2015 consultation report the AHRC reported that at almost all the public meetings it held complaints were raised about the chaplains program.
It said while the program varied between schools many people raised the “implications of government paying religious organisations to provide chaplaincy services in public schools that would otherwise be provided free at a place of worship”.
“The chaplaincy program … restricts freedom FROM religion,” one survey respondent said. “A democratic government should be secular yet it has imposed a religious preference on all children regardless of their background.”
Doig said one non-religious couple had complained to the AHRC when they were not hired for the program, but this was the first time it had been asked to inquire into the “transparently discriminatory program”.
Howarth responded to the complaint by saying “these people are anti-religion, anti-God, anti-anything non-secular”.
“They want to throw the baby out with the bathwater; there is a lot of support for chaplains from people who aren’t people of faith due to the good works they do in schools.”
Howarth said chaplains “don’t go round preaching” or recruiting students, but were free to answer questions about their faith.
Asked why pastoral care could not be provided by non-religious people, he said that “we’ve already got counsellors and psychologists that do that role” and noted the program allowed people of different faiths to serve as chaplains.
Croucher is also a member of the review of religious freedom led by former the attorney general Philip Ruddock.
The Ruddock review was due to report by 31 March but the prime minister announced it would be extended to 18 May owing to an avalanche of more than 16,000 submissions.