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Australian court rules federal funding of school chaplains program is unconstitutional

An Australian atheist campaigning to keep religion out of the education system won his second victory Thursday when the nation's highest court ruled that it is unconstitutional for the federal government to fund a program that provides chaplains to schools.

Ron Williams began his legal battle against the multimillion-dollar program after his 6-year-old son came home from Darling Heights State School in Toowoomba city in Queensland state singing gospel songs in 2010.

Williams won in 2012 when the High Court ruled that the government had exceeded its constitutional powers by funding the program, which began in around 2,700 schools five years earlier.

The government kept the program going by amending federal legislation to address the court's ruling. But five High Court judges on Thursday unanimously agreed with Williams that the federal funding of chaplain contractor Scripture Union Queensland remained unconstitutional despite the law change.

Both judgments focused on technical aspects of how the federal government can spend public money under the constitution rather than deal with Williams' philosophical objection to state-funded religion in secular schools.

"It always seemed totally inappropriate that a program could be put into public schools on no other basis than the largely unqualified people that were going in — with the only proviso being that they be religious," Williams told Australian Broadcasting Corp. after Thursday's ruling.

Conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he wanted to find a way to keep the 60 million Australian dollar ($57 million) a year program going. The government was examining the court's ruling.

"We very much support it and we want it to continue," said Abbott, who was educated in a Roman Catholic school and spent three years studying to become a priest in the 1970s.

But the national teachers union and the left-wing minor Greens party agreed that the money would be better spent on providing schools with qualified counsellors, psychologists and welfare workers rather than chaplains.

Sydney University constitutional lawyer Anne Twomey said the government could fund the program safe from legal challenge through the states with tied grants, instead of paying the chaplain providers directly.

"They could have always done this stuff through the states under grants; they chose to do these things by direct methods and one of the reasons they did that in the past was to get directly the political kudos that come from it," she said.

"The chaplaincy program was all about getting direct political support from religious lobby groups," she added.

The National School Chaplaincy Association, which represents the chaplains, agreed that the money should be directed through the states, which run the schools.

Government lawmaker Andrew Laming, who convinced former Prime Minister John Howard to start the program, dismissed its critics as a "loose alliance of Greens, gays and atheists."