FUNDING for religious chaplains in schools has been declared invalid by the High Court for the second time, in a major victory for Toowoomba father-of-six Ron Williams.
The landmark ruling has cast legal doubt on more than 400 commonwealth spending programs, and could force the Abbott government to overhaul the way it funds everything from private schools and universities to hospitals and local roads.
In a unanimous decision, the High Court found the $244 million school chaplains program was invalid because it was not supported by a head of constitutional power.
It is the second time the High Court has knocked over the school chaplaincy scheme.
In 2012, following an earlier challenge by Mr Williams, the High Court ruled spending on the chaplaincy scheme was invalid because it was not supported by specific legislation passed by parliament.
Days later, the Gillard government rushed emergency legislation through parliament to rescue the scheme and support funding for hundreds of other government programs that were also not supported by legislation.
However, today the High Court ruled the 2012 legislation was invalid in so far as it related to the school chaplains scheme because it was not supported by a specific head of constitutional power.
The decision casts doubt on billions in funding for other government programs covered by the legislation, including the National Disability Insurance Scheme, local infrastructure schemes, funding for surf clubs and other projects in marginal electorates, drought assistance, counter-terrorism funding and job services.
The school chaplaincy program was first introduced by the Howard government and continued under Labor, which expanded it to cover secular student welfare workers.
In May, the Abbott government announced a further $244m for the scheme over four years to provide chaplains for 2900 schools, but scrapped funding for non-religious counsellors.
Mr Williams has four children enrolled at the Darling Heights State Primary School in Toowoomba, west of Brisbane, which has had a commonwealth-funded chaplain since 2007.
He is a passionate believer in the separation of church and state, previously telling The Australian: “Public schools aren’t a place for religious missionaries, with or without government funding. The fact the federal government was funding them was adding insult to injury.’’
Mr Williams has self-funded both cases with the help of donations from other parents and has said his aim in launching the second round of litigation was to “keep the ******** honest” by ensuring all commonwealth spending was properly scrutinised by parliament and the public.
National School Chaplaincy Association spokesman Peter James this week said the educational benefits of the chaplaincy program were widely recognised by schools, educators and parents.
He said a recent study of school chaplaincy by the Research Centre for Vulnerable Children and Families at the University of Western Australia had shown 96 per cent of respondents — including school principals and teaching staff — supported the work of school chaplains and agreed they were valued as members of a student support services team.