CEO, Scripture Union Queensland
Home Town: Brisbane
When the High Court decided in June to uphold a challenge to the federal government’s school chaplains program, the response from Nicola Roxon and Peter Garrett was immediate.
The attorney-general and school education minister fronted the media just hours later to assure the public that the $430 million program (which funds chaplains in around 2,700 public schools) would continue, much to the delight of funding recipient Scripture Union Queensland boss Peter James. James had helped lead the campaign to keep chaplains in government schools.
"The government acted immediately after the High Court’s decision and through herculean effort has safeguarded the important pastoral care work of chaplains," a relieved James said in a statement issued in the aftermath. "It was an extraordinary effort in an impossible timeframe and we are very grateful".
It’s not surprising James was grateful. Scripture Union is the largest employer of chaplains in the country, with the Sunshine State also being home to the nation’s highest proportion of pastoral workers. Almost 900 state schools provide taxpayer-funded school chaplains.
Scripture Union provides the overwhelming majority of chaplains (or ‘chappies’ as they like to call them) in these schools, thanks to funding boosts under both the Rudd and Gillard governments.
Ron Williams is the man who initiated the challenge against the chaplaincy program. The Toowoomba father-of-four contested the scheme on the grounds that it violated religious freedom protection in the constitution and that it exceeds commonwealth funding powers.
The High Court rejected his first argument but upheld Williams’ second case 6-1. Just days later the government legislated to shore up the plan.
Williams says providers like the Scripture Union have been big beneficiaries from the Howard-era program. In 2006, the then-prime minister initially allocated $90 million for chaplains. Last year Julia Gillard provided a further $222 million.
"Obviously the media took notice of what James said because it was absolutely backed up by Roxon and Garrett," Williams tells The Power Index. "He certainly is a player in there and the most visible for making comments about chaplaincy."
But it’s not just the federal government listening to the Scripture Union. The organisation has been able to whip up substantial support amongst other Christian organisations.
In a crusade joined by the Jim Wallace-led Australian Christian Lobby, ex-Scripture Union boss (and former rugby league ref turned LNP MP) Tim Mander organised a 'National Prayer Day' for chaplaincy, as well as donations to a legal fighting fund and an online petition.
Williams also says an email was allegedly sent by Mander calling for the group to be “very active” on the PR front, including engaging “sympathetic journalists”. The email has been posted to atheist forums. The Scripture Union did not respond to a request for an interview to ask if the email was legitimate.
Still, Williams says there is a considerable groundswell of support from his own backers. Particularly around one of his key arguments of the need for a secular education system.
In a submission to a 2011 discussion paper on the program, Australian Education Union national president Angelo Gavrielatos wrote: "The AEU believes that taxpayer funds should not be used to employ chaplains/ministers or laypreachers of any denomination in public schools as it undermines the separation of church and state."
Despite claims that the program is multi-faith, some 98% of chaplains employed under the program are Christian, according to statistics released under a 2011 discussion paper. The 2011 census found 61% of people identify as Christian.
The Scripture Union says chaplains don’t teach religious instruction and that school communities decide what beliefs they have. Clearly, the federal government has faith.