Religious freedom is not under ‘frontal attack’, says former Prime Minister John Howard

Si Gladman / 26 February 2021


Former Prime Minister John Howard has rejected suggestions that religious freedom is under attack in Australia, warning that such claims risk “losing credibility” as religious groups push for the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill.

In a webinar interview with FamilyVoice Australia earlier this week, Mr Howard acknowledged that the outcome of the same-sex marriage plebiscite had resulted in heightened concerns in religious communities for religious freedom.

However, on multiple occasions, he dismissed the claims that religious freedom was under threat in Australia.

“I don’t think that it’s credible to say there is a frontal attack on religious freedom. I think that runs the risk of losing credibility,” he said.

“People who are running around saying it are exaggerating the situation.”

Despite taking this position, Mr Howard argued that legislative action was necessary to protect the religious ethos of institutions.

Faith-based schools and other institutions are campaigning for such measures to be expanded in the Morrison government’s proposed Religious Discrimination Bill. 

The second exposure draft of the bill provided a wider range of faith-based institutions, including aged-care facilities, retirement homes and charitable service providers, with the ability to discriminate in the hiring of staff and the provision of services.

The #DontDivideUs campaign opposing the Religious Discrimination Bill is warning against the expansion of such measures because of the predictable increase in discrimination against Australians.

In citing some examples, the campaign says:

  • schools could refuse to hire a gardener, accountant or tuckshop manager unless they produced a reference from the local religious organisation as evidence of their faith;
  • a church-run early learning centre could refuse to accept children whose parents don’t attend church.

Mr Howard said the more general issue of concern to him was the “growing attempt” to diminish the impact of Christianity on society and what he described as the Western canon.

“[The Western canon] is intimately tied up with the Christian religion because Christianity has been at the heart of the development of Western society,” he said. 

Mr Howard’s presentation on the topic ‘Freedom of Speech: Does It Exist?’ explored a number of other issues, including Facebook’s ban on news, the media, woke-ism, cancel culture and Victoria’s banning of gay conversion practices.

He said the three keys for maintaining freedom of speech in Australia rested in: a robust parliamentary system that ensured a contest of ideas; an incorruptible judicial system and court structure that ensured mistakes made at a lower level could be fixed at a higher level; and a free media.

He warned of a trend toward banning speech merely for being considered offensive.

“I think there is a danger in our society now that, in the name of protecting certain groups from the claimed excesses of offensive language, we are in danger of preventing people from expressing their points of view,” he said.

“I think the right balance to be found in this area is that language that is designed to incite violence, to incite wrongdoing against another, should be sanctioned by the law, but language which is merely expressed in a vigorous or often colourful or often in a very offensive way is not something that should be sanctioned by law.”

#DontDivideUs is backed by the Rationalist Society of Australia and a number of other pro-secular community groups. You can support the campaign here.


Photo credit: Commonwealth of Australia

All the more reason.