Dad Who Challenged School Chaplains Program Beats The Government In The High Court

The High Court of Australia

A Queensland father who challenged the federal funding of the school chaplains program in state schools has won his case in the High Court Of Australia.

It’s the second time Ron Williams has won, striking down the federal government’s National School Chaplaincy Program, which received $245 million in the recent federal budget.

The High Court determined that the program was not funded lawfully in 2012, after Williams challenged it the first time, forcing the then-Labor Government to rewrite the laws.

The school parent then launched a new challenge and this morning the High Court found that those new laws were unconstitutional.

The question considered by the Full Bench was whether the Commonwealth was able to fund the program at a local level. The states supported the Williams case concerned that the feds were bypassing them and setting a precedent for other programs.

In its summary of the decision, the High Court wrote:

The Court held that, in their operation with respect to the challenged funding agreement and the challenged payments made under that agreement, none of the challenged provisions is a valid law of the Commonwealth.

The provisions are not, in their relevant operation, supported by a head of legislative power under the Constitution.

Providing at a school the services of a chaplain or welfare worker for the objective described in the FMA Regulations is not a provision of “benefits to students” within the meaning of s 51(xxiiiA) of the Constitution.

The Court further held that the Commonwealth’s entry into, and expenditure of money under, the funding agreement was not supported by the executive power of the Commonwealth. The making of the payments was therefore held to be unlawful.

The school chaplains program began in 2006 under the Howard government and grew under Labor, but has since become an ideological battleground between the Coalition and the ALP after the Abbott government scrapped funding for non-religious student welfare workers under the program, which offers $20,000 each to around 3000 schools.

That move dramatically expanded the scope for religion in schools, since around a quarter of the schools accessing the funding used it for secular counsellors.

The National School Chaplaincy Association will respond to the decision at a press conference at 1pm today.

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