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Former PM John Howard stands up for religious freedom

Marilyn Rodrigues
Marilyn Rodrigues
Marilyn Rodrigues is a journalist for The Catholic Weekly. She also writes at Email her at [email protected]
John howard - religious freedom - The catholic weekly
John Howard says religious schools should be able to retain their ‘ambience’, in hiring staff members who share the same beliefs. Photo: Giovanni Portelli Photography/The Catholic Weekly

Former Prime Minister John Howard has strongly defended the right of faith-based schools to hire staff who share the same religious beliefs and values as “common sense”, saying that it should be respected in any new legislation affecting religious freedoms.

He also denounced the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s proposal to rephrase the question on religion in the 2026 Census, saying it exposes an ideological war being waged against religious groups by public servants inside the ‘Canberra bubble’.

Questioning why governments would seek to restrict the ability of such schools to preserve their religious “ambience”, Howard said he thought most Australians would agree that it made sense not to outlaw belief as a factor in their hiring decisions.

He made his comments to The Catholic Weekly while attending the launch of former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s memoir Plans for Your Good in Oatlands in north-west Sydney on 9 May.

They come as the Albanese Government considers its promised reforms to anti-discrimination legislation which will need to address the question of how religious schools can remain an option for parents who want their children educated within a faith tradition.

Religious schools’ leaders say the Australian Law Reform Commission recommendations on the issue tabled in March would severely limit the ability of their schools to function in line with their ethos.

In recommending repealing section 38 of the Sex Discrimination Act it seeks to “narrow” the circumstances in which faith-based schools may preference the employment of staff and enrolment of students who hold the same beliefs.

Meanwhile, a series of ‘Faith in our Future’ town hall rallies around the country is currently drawing thousands of parents, educators, and auxiliary schools staff together in support of Christian schools.

In Queensland this month, Islamic and Christian leaders have protested similar draft state laws which will prevent religious schools from refusing to employ teachers on religious grounds unless it is a “genuine occupational requirement”, the ABC reported.

Howard, who was educated in the public system and served as the country’s prime minister from 1996-2007, said Australians should have the right to educate their children in accordance with their beliefs.

“I feel very strongly that if you send your child to a Catholic school you expect them to be educated in the ambience of the religion and I think it’s outrageous that that’s not accepted, and I think whatever changes are made to religious freedom and the like that has got to be respected,” Howard said.

“It’s very simple,” he continued. “You have a perfect right, if you are running a Catholic school or an Anglican school, if you’ve got a teacher who is kicking against the fundamentals of the religion you’ve got a perfect right to say, ‘Wish you well, God bless you, but get a job somewhere else.’

“I think that’s common sense and I think most Australians [would agree] but you’ve got to worry that the anti-religious lobby in the public service is quite strong.”

Howard said while he was pleased with his own state education, he had been supportive while serving as prime minister of making it easier to start new low-fee private schools, particularly in cities’ outer suburbs, and that the Catholic sector today is “holding up pretty good.”

The Catholic sector is the major provider of non-government provided education, educating one in five Australian students according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and mostly in low-fee schools.

Faith and school leaders welcome statesman’s support

A number of Catholic faith and school leaders agreed that Howard’s comments in favour of robust religious freedoms in Australia were “common sense.”

Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP said that that religion and faith-based institutions have made an “enormous contribution to the life of our country”, whether in education, health, welfare, and “general community cohesiveness”.

“Mr Howard recognises this and brings clarity and common sense about a matter that should not be controversial,” Archbishop Fisher added.

“That this type of reasonableness is rare in contemporary political debates is regrettable.”

Australian Catholic Bishops Conference President, Archbishop Timothy Costelloe said that “many people of all political persuasions, and of none, would agree that the rights of parents and guardians to choose a school for their children which faithfully expresses their world view, including the ethical and religious aspects of that world view, must be supported and facilitated.

“This necessarily requires that a school must have the right to employ staff who share, or are willing to support, the ethos and values of the school.”

Jacinta Collins, National Catholic Education Commission executive director and a former Labor senator, said there has been “longstanding support for the choice of a faith-based education by both major parties and consecutive governments over the years including the Howard Government.”

“It’s critical that families have the right to educate their children according to their values and beliefs and that our schools can continue to operate and teach according to our ethos,” she added.

“This includes employing staff who are willing to support that ethos.

“The Albanese Government has indicated their commitment and support of these essential principles and the ability to continue to build our communities of faith which have been serving the educational needs of families for over 200 years.”

Proposed Census plan “outrageous”

Howard also called “outrageous” the Bureau’s planned change to the question about religion in the next Census.

Earlier this month the President of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference Archbishop Costello spoke out about the plan to replace the list of options with one tick box for ‘no’ religion, alongside a blank space.

Archbishop Costello and Dr Trudy Dantis of the National Centre for Pastoral Research have argued that the change would disadvantage those for whom English is not a first language, as well as limit the ability of governments and faith communities to direct assistance according to need.

“That’s outrageous, that’s trying to load it against religion,” Howard said of the plan.

“It’s all part of creating the impression that religion is a dying influence in the Australian community. I was very strongly opposed and thought it was a mistake of the former Government to allow the religious adherence question to be re-jigged…to place ‘no religion’ at the top [of the list of religious options.]”

“And they will say we can ignore the churches, ignore the attitudes of the Catholic or the Anglican church because nobody goes there anyway. [But] the attendance depend[s] on what measurement you use might be using.”

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