Church in a state

The “Biblezines” handed out at a primary school at Torquay in Victoria were unambiguous in their criticism of contraception, homosexuality, masturbation and sex before marriage. They took a dim view of young girls who “cause anyone else to sin” by wearing low-rise jeans or tops where “nipples are much more noticeable and a distraction and temptation for men”.

On the subject of sexual purity, the pamphlets distributed by Access Ministries, which administers much of the National School Chaplaincy program, were equally unequivocal: “Let’s put it this way: How much dog poop stirred into your cookie batter does it take to ruin the whole batter?”

Access Ministries later apologised. It was a mistake. They were meant to be handing out copies of the Bible, noted for its kinder stance on contraception, homosexuality, masturbation and sex before marriage.

But the High Court was as unambiguous as the Biblezine in its rejection of the chaplaincy program this week, or more specifically the use of quarter of a billion dollars in federal money to fund it: “Today the High Court unanimously decided that legislation enacted by the Commonwealth Parliament which purported to provide legislative authority to make agreements for the outlay of public money, and to make payments under those agreements, is invalid in its operation with respect to a funding agreement between the Commonwealth and Scripture Union Queensland.”

Hasty legislation to allow the government to make prescriptive payments to state services was unconstitutional. The money paid was unlawful. The chaplaincy program, the court determined, could not be regarded a “benefit to students” for the sake of law. “[N]one of the challenged provisions is a valid law of the Commonwealth,” the statement noted. “The provisions are not, in their relevant operation, supported by a head of legislative power under the Constitution.”

This is a case about state and federal power. But it says much about the influence of the church in schools, and of the government’s desire to see that influence extended. It is part of that knot of legislative excess that saw students in New South Wales forbidden by law access to any ethical instruction not provided by the church, until the Keneally government bowed to sense and parental lobbying.

Of course, there is no mistaking whose policy this is. On hearing the decision, Tony Abbott was emphatic in reminding us whose unlawfulness we were dealing with: “This is a policy that was invented by the Coalition. It was supported by the Coalition. It was confirmed by the Coalition. So we very much support it and we want it to continue. We’ve only just got this judgement. We’ll carefully study the judgement and we’ll make an appropriate response after we’ve made that study.”

Hours after the decision, Mathias Cormann used his powers as finance minister to waive $150 million in debts incurred by illegal payments already made under the program. The court’s decision will almost certainly be challenged by legislation. The Coalition is too far into defending the church’s right to hunt schoolyards for disciples.

A little poop in the cookie dough, to quote the pamphlet.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 21, 2014 as "Church in a state". Subscribe here.