Despite political opposition and court challenges, Australia's government will continue to use state funds to put staff chaplains in both public and private schools, as it has since 2007.
In August, the government of new Prime Minister Julia Gillard promised to extend the program through 2014. State-funded chaplains now serve 2,700 schools; Gillard wants to add another 1,000.
Gillard, whose atheism sparked international discussion during the campaign, nevertheless pledged faith in the chaplaincy system in an interview with the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) shortly after taking office.
"We think it has been a great success, and what we wanted to see is to make sure schools around the country were fairly benefiting from it," Gillard told ACL director Jim Wallace.
"Many school principals are saying they want pastoral care in their schools," said Tim Mander, ceo of Scripture Union Queensland, one of the major suppliers of chaplains to schools in Queensland, which has more school chaplains than any other state. "In most cases, chaplains are the first point of contact for students with social, spiritual, emotional and sometimes physical needs. Principals and teachers agree that students are more comfortable approaching their chaplain, who is a non-authority figure in the school, than other adults in the school community."
The program is voluntary. Chaplains offer "comfort and support to students and staff" as well as "general religious and personal advice," said a spokesman for Peter Garrett, Australia's cabinet minister for education and youth.
"The aim of the chaplaincy program is to provide a complementary support role working alongside psychologists [and] counselors," Garrett's spokesman said. "It is not intended to diminish or replace these services."
Chaplains cannot tell students what they themselves believe unless asked. Most are Christian, though a few schools have Muslim or Buddhist chaplains.
"Chappies," as Australians call them, do have detractors. A Queensland parent is challenging the program in Australia's High Court, claiming it violates the nation's constitutional ban on state-established religion. The Australian Psychological Society (APS) worries that some chaplains without proper psychological training are counseling students. The APS would shift chaplaincy funding to "evidence-based psychological services."
"The APS has asked the government to change their guidelines to ensure that chaplains only work with students with mental health issues only under the guidance of school psychologists," says Monica Thielking, a former APS advisor who recommended changes to the government program. "That way, students receive the benefit of the services that a chaplain may offer, but in a safe and monitored way."
Rebekah Robinson, a primary school chaplain in Brisbane, Queensland, says that on genuine mental health issues, she and other chaplains are trained to "refer, refer, refer," generally to the principal. Much of a chaplain's job, she says, is not under a counselor's purview.
"You can't tie up a professional psychologist on a professional psychologist's wage with, 'He stole my pencil and I want it back.' "
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A few months ago, SU Queensland CEO Tim Mander debated psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg about chaplaincy on Australian TV.