I’m not entirely familiar with what is happening in Australian politics and the whole School Chaplains debate at the moment. I know that there is some debate about funding for school chaplains, it being challenged in a High Court, and that the funding was dealt a blow when the court ruled the funding “Unconstitutional”. Apparently just one father in Queensland thought it a fair enough gesture to challenge the funding based on his own personal belief that there should be no religious influence in his child’s school, nor should his taxes be paying for it. Meanwhile, this same father doesn’t seem to have the same passion for thousands of children locked in Australian detention centers, all funded by his taxes.
But as little as I know about the ins and outs of the debate, I feel that those who oppose the whole School Chaplains idea are doing so out of a very obvious and long standing discrimination against religious people. While I don’t have much of an opinion on whether or not the School Chaplains idea is a good one, or whether it should be a federally funded initiative, I do have a strong opinion on the discrimination it highlights.
The view by opponents of the idea is that qualified school counselors and psychologists can do the job just fine, and that there is no need for an outwardly religious person to do the same job. Afterall, what is their motivation? Does their title of “School Chaplain” give them the ultimate right to proselytise to young, impressionable and perhaps vulnerable school students? Wouldn’t a secular counselor or psychologist be better suited?
While I do not doubt that social workers and psychologists are FANTASTIC additions to a school community (afterall, I AM one!), in certain situations, it might be more appropriate for a chaplain to step in.
But before you jump up in arms about what I have just said there, I want to first highlight the complete and utter discrimination that is going on here. Lets assume for a moment, that a school has hired a school counselor and that school counselor is me, or someone like me. Ultimately, I am motivated by a love for God to do the work that I do at that school. God loves people, and wants people to be helped and supported during their most difficult patches, and I am called to be that person. I understand that my role is not to bring people closer to God by sharing the Gospel in ANY way, but just being with them helps them to be closer to the person God wants them to be. It would be completely unprofessional for me to, for instance, start asking a young girl about her relationship with God whilst she is sharing that her father has been molesting her. Somehow, in our society, we believe that a School Chaplain would have a different set of standards, and would breech that confidence, targeting instead the religious, instead of the very real concern for that girl’s safety. And here lies the discrimination. For we don’t fear the good that a school chaplain could do, but we fear the damage. Somehow, secular society doesn’t have the same confidence in an unpredictable, religious person hired to do much the same job as a counselor or psychologist, with a slight difference, which I will come to.
Religious people are often thought to be intolerant of different beliefs, fanatical, preaching on the streets, handing out flyers, warning of the end of the world and militantly converting whomever they think needs saving. Not only this, but they are often laughed at for having an “imaginary friend”, believing that the world was created in 7 days and that somehow, Darwinism ultimately disproved the existence of God. Society hails people like Richard Dawkins as heroes of Athiesm, using his claims (which most are unaware of) as a sword against religiousity. Religious people are stupid, misguided, brainwashed types who somehow have a slight mental illness. This discrimination is what is fueling the debate against School Chaplains. Somehow, it gets lost on people that Chaplains also need a university education in order to qualify as Chaplains (but those religious institutions are not REAL educations, right?). As a rule, schools always require at least a Diploma in Education for all their employees, presumably also for Chaplains. And yet still, a psychologist or counselor is considered more capable, more qualified, and more suited to the school environment. In my view, all three would be a valuable member of a school community.
There is one instance where a school Chaplain might trump a counselor or psychologist, and that is during times of trauma for a school. In both my Primary and High schooling, a student passed away suddenly. Both were very distressing times for myself and the school. I remember distinctly the feeling on the school grounds when the whole school had been informed. It was as though the joy had been sucked out of the school. Despite being a Catholic school, there was no whole of school approach to the news in either case apart from being offered to go to the funeral. This left us all feeling a little bit lost when it came to how we grieved. There was no continuity in regards to school personnel, and no-one really to talk to about how we were feeling. Of course, there was the school counselor, but they usually counseled the students directly affected by the death. In Primary school, I wasn’t in the grade affected, but in High School, it was one of my friend’s sisters who passed away. The closest we came to being supported was having a brunch with the nuns, my friend and my group. I can only imagine that a public school would have struggled with how to help students such as myself who were not directly involved, but who were deeply affected by the loss.
Public schools have also to recognise that while not all students are religious, there are some that are, and there are also some who may be spiritual but without a recognised religion. A school chaplain in such a case as the death of a students could help those students more profoundly than a school counselor or psychologist. For instance, a school counselor might ask how the student’s faith might be helping them during that time, whereas a Chaplain would be able to join in the discussion or perhaps even pray for that student (shock, horror!). The support of an older person in such a way can have an even more powerful effect than simple empathy.
School Chaplains could provide a valuable option for a school willing to participate in this federal program. A Chaplain is like a big brother or sister in the school, whereas a counselor or psychologist is often locked up in a small room talking to a select few, a chaplain gets out there and provides a safe haven during the good and bad times. The discrimination against School Chaplains is simply based in a fear of what being an outwardly religious person might mean in a school environment. In my view, that fear is completely unfounded. Not all School Chaplains are fanatical Christians, just like not all Christians are fanatical. It is absurd to suggest that a psychologist or counselor would do a “better” job simply because they are not religious positions. It is equally absurd to suggest that a School Chaplain would do a worse job. Neither is better, or worse. They are all options, and all very good options. Both have their strengths, and weaknesses, and neither is suited to all school environments at all times. And yet, opponents of School Chaplains would have us believe that one trumps the other which is simply untrue.
School Chaplains are not just “well intentioned”, but highly trained individuals just like their counselor or psychologist counterparts. Their religiosity does not preclude them from employment in a secular school, but respects that even amongst secularism, there is a level of spirituality that cannot be addressed by secular means. The driving force behind opposition to the Chaplaincy program is purely and simply religious discrimination, and the desire to keep religious influence away from “impressionable” young minds. In my view, this is unfounded in the same way that any discrimination in our society about religious people is also unfounded.