The Australian Constitution Encourages State Aid for Church Schools!

 Published in Journal of Christian Education, 2001, 44.2, 41-44

 by Ted Witham

 When we lived in America our two toddlers were confronted one day by a senior North Carolina citizen who demanded “Don’t you mind your parents?”  She was obviously perplexed by these wild foreign children who had no idea of obedience and their parents who had no clue about parenting.

But our children were dumbstruck. They had no choice about minding their parents.  We were just there.  At that moment, they needed a translator to say that the lady is asking whether you obey your parents. The lady needed a translator to explain that the children think you asked whether they tolerate their parents.

All travellers know that a word in a different context can mean something quite different.  ‘Mind’ is different in North Carolina than in Australia.  I want to show that the balance between public and private education in Australia arises from a unique context. Lessons learnt in America in particular cannot be translated directly into Australia.

I believe most Christians commend the place of public schools.  A community building a “Knowledge Nation” can achieve quality in education only through its public schools.  Public schools must be supported first to establish a benchmark of quality. Private schools, including church schools, can provide an education of high quality only if first the general education system is of high quality. Christians devise good reasons to educate the rich, in order to help produce compassionate leaders for our society. They have an even greater obligation to ensure the access of the poorest children in our community to good quality education.

The argument around State aid to church schools still persists. Should the Government fund church schools?  At a pragmatic level the answer is quite clearly ‘yes’.  The private school system would collapse if all funding were withdrawn. The Government would then have no way of maintaining education for the 30% of Australian children who now attend private schools (Bond 2001, pp. 8-10)

But the more important question is, “Is it right for community funds to be funnelled into church schools?”

In the late 1970s the Council for the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) attempted to challenge the constitutionality of funding church schools in the High Court.  Their argument was based on Section 116[1] of the Australian Constitution that prohibits the “establishment” of religion (Ely 1981, p. 1 et passim).  They argued that giving funds to churches was illegal because it “established religion”.

To prove this case DOGS pointed out that Section 116 is identical to the Religious Liberty clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.  The writers of the Australian Constitution deliberately adopted that set of words (Bale 2001, pp. 12-15). In court, DOGS argued that in America it had been ruled unconstitutional to grant funds to church schools; therefore the same must hold here.

Surely, however, the context is so different that this argument does not pertain.  Section 116 establishes a freedom both from the Government interfering in the organisational running of religious institutions, and also a freedom to practise religion in whatever way a citizen chooses.

These freedoms mean different things in America and in Australia.  America was colonised by religious groups fleeing from oppressive governments, in which religion was “established”. The King of England was the head of the Church of England. The French monarch was a Catholic king.

These persecuted groups brought a variety of convictions about church-state relationships to North America with them. The liberty they found in their colonies encouraged each group to organise their religion and their community according to their differing beliefs.  Some saw an opportunity to set up the Kingdom of God on earth: church and state were synonymous. Others, smarting from persecution, desired no connection between church and state: the state was inherently godless.

Much early internal migration within colonial America was caused by conflicts on this issue. Only later, the First Amendment articulated a compromise to satisfy the different theologies of the Christian groups who founded America.  The First Amendment guaranteeing freedom from State interference was then a novelty.  No European government had ever envisioned separation of the two. Freedom to practise whatever religion a citizen chose was equally protected.  The Amendment was a compromise between fiercely, passionately religious groups (Haynes & Thomas 1998, Chapter 3).

Australia’s situation contrasted totally. Australia’s colonisers were largely convicts. The “established” government of England had punished them by deportation to the new colony, with all the oppressive might of the established government intact. Harsh administration of law and order by Anglican priests doubling as magistrates in Sydney Cove fomented the convicts’ resentment against the established church.

As the nation developed it feared that “establishment” by this oppressive established church was a real possibility in the new order, and so resisted it successfully.

This Australian climate is clearly very different from America’s. Australia’s disposition was (and to some extent still is) anti-religion.  Australian is not characterised by tension between passionate Christian groups. The way Australians favour the non-religious would be unthinkable in America. In thinking about schooling, the Australian climate requires the Christian citizen to consider the education of all citizens and not simply that of Christians.

In the nineteenth century, the church involved itself in education in Australia.  However, education offered by the churches was always open to all and based on literacy and numeracy, reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, with religious values kept in the background.

This contrasts with the “little red schoolhouse” in nineteenth century America.  Whole communities working together across denominational lines, with intentionally secular structures, developed community schools in the nineteenth century that were predominantly Christian in temper and content.

The little red schoolhouse was very different to the school run by Ministers’ wives in nineteenth century Australia.  Similar ingredients in both countries combined differently to create dissimilar outcomes.

In the late 1800s, the larger Protestant denominations in Australia began founding their own schools.  The founders of these larger schools saw themselves as Christians providing education, rather than Christian educators providing Christian education.  They were meeting a lack in the community, rather than forming Christian children in their faith.

There are still arguments, debates to be had about the funding, and level of funding of church schools, but I rebut the assertion that Section 116 of the Constitution prohibits funding private schools.

Even authors agreeing with politicians who in the 1890s advocated the abolition of state aid demonstrate that the motivation was not “by any desire to persecute the Roman Catholic church or any other church, but rather the determination to make the State … the symbol of common citizenship.” (Gregory, quoted in Birrell 2001, p. 64).

The American Amendment is a different word in a different context.  In the US, these words may well ban the State from spending money on religious education, but in Australia, they challenge the community to spend its money on all students.


Bale, C. (2001), Federation and the Churches. St Mark’s Review, Canberra, 2001(2), No.185, 12-15.

Birrell, B (2001), Federation: The Secret Story, Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove.

Bond, S. (2001), Australian Schools: Growth in the Non-Government Sector, Pointers: Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, Melbourne, March 2001. Vol. 11(1) 8-10.

Ely, M.J. (1981) Erosion of the Judicial Process: An Aspect of Church-State Entanglement in Australia, Melbourne: Council for the Defence of Government Schools.

Haynes, C.C. & Thomas, O. (Eds.) (1998), Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education, Nashville: The First Amendment Center.


[1] Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act

116. The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing religion, or for imposing any religious observance, of for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.


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