Attempts to remove current exemptions in anti-discrimination laws would only undermine the capacity of schools to teach their faith, warned former Prime Minister John Howard.
Speaking at a conference Mr Howard said most Australians would agree that parents who choose to send their children to religious schools are entitled to have the faith taught to them.
“I don’t think the Australian community want to have a situation where any attempt is made to interfere with the right of a Catholic school, an Anglican school, a Jewish school or a Muslim school to reasonably require of their employees that they give general assent to the values and doctrines which are taught at the school,” he said.
Mr Howard also cautioned against the politicisation of corporations and other organisations in the current religious freedom debate in Australia. “The first, and I think the most unwelcome development, has been the growing disposition of organisations and companies to take positions on social issues,” he told several hundred members of the Order of Malta in Sydney last weekend.
He also questioned the right of businesses to make a person’s religious beliefs subject to an employment contract. Mr Howard referred to 2017’s same-sex marriage debate and the recent Israel Folau case as examples of these. “I think this is a terrible development and I first saw it at the time of the debate on same sex marriage where a large number of well-known companies took a position [in favour of same sex marriage],” he told an audience gathered at the Hilton Hotel.
While he accepted managing directors and board chairs of Australian companies could have strong personal views on an issue, he strongly disagreed with the idea that major banks or accounting companies representing, in some cases, millions of customers could declare their support for a political position “when it has absolutely nothing at all to do with the business of banking.”
“The reality is that this is a seriously unwelcome development,” Mr Howard said. But this had occurred because “activist corporate affairs and human resources units inside large companies” had become key players in politicising corporations. “And of course it has manifested itself in relation to the extremely regrettable circumstances surrounding Israel Folau,” he added.
While he understood contractual issues are part of the Folau case, “the reality is that if you apply a balanced common sense approach to issues like this, the question of the reasonable expression of a religious view should never be part of an employment contract – it’s got nothing to do with it,” he said.
While he didn’t assert that threats to religious freedom was the principal reason why some people voted as they did in the recent election, it had been one of several factors at play.
“I think the backdrop of the Folau issue and particularly how it played into the debate about religious freedom was something that influenced people, not only of the Christian religion but also people of other religious beliefs in the Australian community, because I think it offended the sense of balance and fair play which is so important [in Australia],” he said.
Removal of religious exemptions ‘biggest concern’
He was hopeful the new Morrison government would act to protect religious freedoms and that this would receive bipartisan support, but urged the Labor Party to reconsider its position.
“If parents send their children to denominational schools because they want a Catholic education, or a Jewish education, or an Anglican education then they are entitled to have that delivered – it’s as simple as that and I think that’s a proposition that most people support,” he said.
He said his biggest concern in relation to religious freedom in Australia was that there would be attempts “to take away the [current] exemptions that exist in anti-discrimination laws and that would undermine the capacity of schools to do what they’ve always done”.
Couching the schools argument as being about expelling gay students “was always a complete furphy – because it wasn’t happening and this is made very, very clear by the spokesmen on behalf of Catholic schools and Anglican schools who represent the two largest cohorts of independent schools,” the former PM said.
He said he was hopeful the Morrison government would act on the freedom issue.
“The Prime Minister has said it’s something that is going to be addressed and I just hope that it’s going to be addressed in the common sense way, in the balanced way, that Australians have addressed so many of these issues in the past.”
Mr Howard mounted a rousing defence of the role of non-government schools in Australian society. “Although maintaining the status quo of those schools is not the be all and end all of the religious freedom issues it’s a very important part of it.
“I would hate to see a situation that was a repeat of what happened to the Archbishop in Tasmania or, indeed, that we ever arrive at a situation where people’s employment is imperilled according to the religious beliefs that they hold, or indeed reasonably express, and that has been one of the issues so starkly provided by the Israel Folau case.”