A High Court ruling against federal funding for school chaplains has thrown into doubt hundreds of programs that cost taxpayers’ billions of dollars.
The court ruled – for a second time – that legislation to pay schools to hire chaplains was unlawful.
The program has been challenged twice by a Queensland father, Ron Williams, who objected to chaplains being employed by his children’s public school.
In 2012, the court ruled that the Constitution did not support payments from the Commonwealth to Scripture Union Queensland to provide chaplaincy services.
But the verdict also casts a cloud over grant funding for more than 400 federal programs, including health, education and roads funding, drought assistance, counter-terrorism, foreign aid and industry assistance.
As a result of that decision, the Gillard Government introduced “catch all” legislation to retrospectively approve the programs.
However, Mr Williams launched a fresh challenge against the legislative fix , which the court ruled on this morning.
The court found the new funding agreement and payments made under that agreement were invalid and unsupported by the Constitution.
“Providing at a school the services of a chaplain or welfare worker for the objective described in the Financial Management and Accountability Regulations is not a provision of “benefits to students” within the meaning of s 51(xxiiiA) of the Constitution,” the court said in a statement.
“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.”
Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews said the Government would carefully consider the verdict’s impact on government programs.
He said the coalition had been concerned Labor’s catch-all approach had been very “dubious” from a constitutional point of view.
“We will have to look carefully at what the High Court has said,” Mr Andrews told Sky News.
“Obviously we need to go back and revisit this because the previous government did not get it right.”
While the court’s ruling was not unexpected, the National School Chaplaincy Association believes federal funding for chaplains will be able to continue.
“It is important to note that this High Court decision is about whether federal funds can be paid directly to chaplaincy providers, or whether the funding should be through state/territory grants. The case is only about the funding model,” association spokesman Peter James said before the verdict.
“Even if the court rules against the Commonwealth, federal funding for school chaplaincy can continue as state/territory grants. This was acknowledged by the High Court in 2012 and again during the 2014 hearing.”
The chaplaincy program was started by John Howard. Under the Labor government, it was expanded to give schools the choice of hiring a secular social worker.
In the recent Federal budget, the Abbott Government boosted funding by $250 million and reverted to restricting the program to religious affiliated chaplains.