A push is on within the federal government to renew, and significantly boost, the "absolutely essential" school chaplaincy program in this year's budget.
Fairfax Media has learnt dozens of Liberal MPs are lobbying senior ministers to increase funding for the $250 million scheme by 25 per cent, and make it a permanent, indexed commitment.
The controversial initiative to insert religious chaplains into state schools - twice ruled invalid by the High Court - was introduced by John Howard, amended but continued under Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, and cemented by Tony Abbott in the 2014 budget.
That budget committed more than $60 million a year to the project, affording an allowance of a religious chaplain to provide pastoral care and guidance for students.
Unions, psychologists and academics have called for the program to be scrapped on the grounds it excludes secular youth workers and risks chaplains crossing a line into proselytising. Funding for the chaplains program runs out this year, unless it is reinstated in the May budget.
But Queensland Liberal/National Party MP Luke Howarth has recruited the support of at least 30 colleagues in a petition to Treasurer Scott Morrison and Education Minister Simon Birmingham calling for the program to be not just maintained but significantly expanded and indexed.
The petition, which was circulating among Coalition MPs last Thursday, calls for a 25 per cent increase in funding for the National School Chaplaincy Program to $25,000 per school. It is understood 30 MPs have put their names to the demands so far, including Queensland independent Bob Katter.
"It's absolutely essential that it’s refunded and the good work of chaplains continues in over 3000 schools around the country," Mr Howarth told Fairfax Media.
"This is very much needed and it has the support of a lot of colleagues in the Coalition ranks from all different states and all different groups and all different classes."
Mr Howarth did not believe the program was seriously under threat but was mindful of the pressure to balance the budget. "You just don’t want to take these things for granted," he said. "I believe it should be made permanent."
Another signatory to the petition, West Australian Liberal MP Ian Goodenough, said the lack of certainty around the program meant "at the last minute, the chaplains get a bit worried about their employment security".
One Liberal MP, who had not seen the petition, said the school chaplains program was "probably the most popular policy in the party room" and it was extremely unlikely to be axed. However, some Liberals refused to sign the petition when asked by Mr Howarth on Thursday.
The voluntary initiative is particularly popular in Queensland, where most state schools employ a religious "chappy". Schools in remote areas are eligible for an additional $4000 a year.
Peter James, spokesman for the National School Chaplaincy Association, confirmed the organisation had asked for a 25 per cent increase in a confidential pre-budget submission.
"We've had $20,000 a year since 2007 and any increase we can get in that would mean we can provide even more services in schools that need it most," he told Fairfax Media.
Education Minister Simon Birmingham said he had "heard a whisper" about the petition but no decisions had been made. "Chaplains will be considered through the budget process," he said.
Labor senator Louise Pratt, who has been outspoken in her opposition to the program in the past, said: "There's an urgent need for youth workers with professional qualifications in our schools
and that would be a much better priority for the government."
In government, Labor opened up the program to include secular youth workers, but this option was eradicated under Mr Abbott.
On Friday, Fairfax Media reported the NSW Department of Education was investigating a potential policy breach at Maclean High School in the state's north after "horrified" parents complained their children were being placed into scripture classes against their wishes.
From the SMH