An action to bring an end to discriminatory policies, which have made it all but impossible for anyone but a committed Christian to find employment as a school chaplain, was settled this month in Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). The case, which The Guardian called ‘a landmark legal challenge that could open the way to secular or atheist chaplains’ [27 Mar 2019, ‘Victoria opens the way for secular or atheist school chaplains‘], requires that the State Department of Education publicly concede that school chaplains can be ‘of any faith or no faith’.
This new policy should also make it problematic for Christian support agencies such as ACCESS ministries to continue to hire only Christians for what were always intended to be non-religious well-being positions.
Spearheaded by the Rationalist Society of Australia and Monash University legal scholar, Luke Beck, the Humanist Society of Victoria (HSV) also played an important role in identifying a plaintiff for the case. It is one of many fronts that HSV has been working on to ensure that religious privilege/overreach/discrimination does not infringe upon the rights of people who do not identify as religious to be able to access, as well as to provide, spiritual care.
Converge International/Reventure, the only entity in the State that recruits people for chaplaincy/pastoral care positions to serve in workplaces, has thus far only been willing to hire Christians for these roles. Thanks to HSV’s recent intervention in a situation whereby Converge was attempting to hire a pair of Christians to provide pastoral care to the 4,000 people in the Rialto Tower business precinct, a discussion was able to take place with Rialto’s management company. The originally envisioned concept was eventually tabled in favour of a religiously neutral approach to workplace well-being.
HSV has been working to engage Victorian Council of Churches (VCC), so that people who do not identify as religious can be allowed to train in psychological first-aid and serve as chaplains/personal support workers in emergencies/disasters. Despite the organisation receiving most of its funding from government sources, VCC currently has in place a policy that allows people of any faith background to volunteer for VCC Emergencies Ministry, but bars people who do not identify as religious. HSV President, Rod Bower, and Joe Sehee, who heads up HSV’s ‘Secular Spiritual Care Network’, had lunch last month with VCC President Ian Smith, in what is hoped to become an expanded conversation about responsibilities of faith-based organisations to recognise the rights of the non-religious.
Through the Secular Spiritual Care Network (SSCN), HSV has also been able to initiate conversations with representatives of groups, such as the Chaplains in Tertiary Institutions, Multi Faith Prison Chaplaincy Leaders Group and Religious Advisory Committee to the Services to challenge policies in prisons, universities and the military, where being in good standing with a recognised faith body is still required of chaplains/spiritual carers.
For many of the same reasons that three out of four Australians getting married choose civil celebrants over clergy members, and in order to be able to support people who have experienced shame or abuse because of religion, HSV envisions there will be growing demand for secular spiritual care in a number of settings.
Reproduced from Victorian Humanist, Vol. 58, No. 3, Apr 2019
Copyright © 2019 Joe Sehee