Thursday, 19 June 2014

Almighty Smack Down

Williams v Commonwealth of Australia [2014] HCA 23.

With that simple procedural title, a Queensland father has challenged the Commonwealth of Australia and won, with the High Court of Australia today ruling federal funding of the school chaplaincy program constitutionally invalid.


This is, of course, a victory for the ages. An enlightened age where the state should not fund "teachers" to divide children based on their parents' religious biases. An age where literacy, numeracy and critical awareness should be instilled in our children, not the anachronistic ravings of a genocidal celestial dictator known as "Our Lord and Heavenly Father". 

As the federal government sliced billions of dollars from the future education budgets of the states, somehow they managed to find almost a quarter of a billion dollars to fund the teaching of a single demented world-view in our public schools. It must be a miracle. Oh, all while taking away the option of non-religious instructors should the school desire it. 

But I am being unfair. Federal coalition governments have an unblemished track record of directly funding the most vital elements of our education system. Like ensuring every school has a flagpole (and flag). Wow. Such nation. Very pride.

Don't get me wrong, if you want to practise your religion (or vexillogical predilections), then you go for it. That is one of the fundamental rights of a free and civil society. But don't ask for the government to subsidise your particular cosmic deity. Or, if you do, I expect to see tax-free status for both Christian churches and the church of the Flying Spahgetti Monster.

If you want to give your child/ren a religious education, then send him/her/it/them to a religious school, where institutionalised discrimination has the approval of the government and subsidy of the taxpayer. Hooray!

Still, the High Court has not struck down the religious nature of the chaplaincy program, only its funding method. The Court explicitly rejected the program's conflict with s116 in Williams's first case against the Commonwealth. It is now possible Court-proof legislation will be passed by the federal government to make the program constitutionally compliant.

Perhaps it's worthwhile taking five seconds to take in s116 of the Australian Constitution (and use this next time some redneck calls up 2GB and says "STRAYA IS A CRISTIAN NAYSHON"):

Commonwealth not to legislate in respect of religion
                   The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth. 

Federal funding of school chaplains is clearly not against the letter of this law, but it arguably against the spirit.

Politics and religion make for insidious bedfellows. While it is possible and indeed a fundamental right for individual MPs to practice their own religious (or irreligious) beliefs, the union of the state and religion should be fought at every possible juncture. State-funded chaplains are a blatant breach of the spirit of our constitution and an affront to modern liberal democracy. Ron Williams has done us all a great service.

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