'My atheism is no threat to the church'

New Australian PM refused to take oath on bible.

Julia Gillard 311 AP (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Julia Gillard 311 AP
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
CANBERRA, Australia — New Prime Minister Julia Gillard assured Australia's Christian majority on Thursday that her atheism would not affect government funding to church-run schools if she is re-elected.
Gillard, who was sworn in last month and promptly called elections, was the first prime minister in the federation's 109-year history to take an affirmation of office instead of swearing on a Bible.
New Australian PM accused of pro-Israel bias
While most Australians are Christian by birth, they are generally not devout and prefer to keep politics and religion separate. Politicians who talk about their Christian faith are derogatorily known as "God botherers," noted Norman Abjorensen, an Australian National University political scientist.
Still, Gillard sought to reassure voters that her faith would not affect government policies such as funding for church-run schools or churches' tax-free status after a Roman Catholic bishop raised concerns.
Campaigning ahead of elections on Aug. 21, she pointed to the record government funding for school building projects that the Catholic church, the largest provider of private education in Australia, had received in her tenure as education minister.
"In terms of the work that the Catholic church does that other churches and religious groups do in our society, I am a big respecter and my history has been to be a big supporter," Gillard told reporters.
"I've worked well and respectfully with the representatives of Catholic schools around the country ... and that's the approach that I will continue to take as prime minister," she added.
Gillard ousted former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, a staunch Anglican, in a coup in their center-left Labor Party last month.
Catholic Archbishop Barry Hickey, of the west coast city on Perth, told The West Australian newspaper that many Christians were concerned about the affect an atheist prime minister could have on church schools and welfare agencies.
"While there is no indication that the present prime minister will undermine the special privileges that churches enjoy, some wonder what the future will bring," Hickey told the newspaper. "This may well influence their vote."
Hickey's office on Thursday confirmed to The Associated Press he had made the comments.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott, a Catholic and a former seminarian, said Gillard's spiritual beliefs should be irrelevant.
"Every candidate in this election should be judged on the basis of competence and policies, not personal beliefs or religious convictions," Abbott told reporters.
Opinion polls show Labor is likely to win a second, three-year term in a close election.