Monday Night Q & A: The separation of church and state

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Satyajeet Marar, Member of the MACQ Liberal Club

We live in a pluralistic, secular society with a sizeable base of non-believers. As classical liberals supporting smaller government, there is no reason why ‘heathen taxes’ should fund someone else’s beliefs or lifestyle. That being said, the role that religious institutions continue to play in public life must be acknowledged and the freedom for anyone to practice their beliefs must be upheld. The good news is that limiting government involvement in religious affairs supports both these notions.

The National School Chaplaincy Program has been expanded under both Liberal and Labor governments. Chaplains are limited to providing ‘spiritual services’ to those seeking them and many children and families report benefiting from the service. But chaplains also end up dealing with children in traumatic family situations which they have not been trained for and it is important that resources are not diverted from legitimate psychological counselling which is best for addressing these issues.

At a time of intense debate over whether various school programs merit funding, the burden imposed upon the public purse by this program cannot be justified and it is best left a service provided voluntarily by religious institutions which benefit from tax concessions under Australian law.

Some raise similar views about public funding for religious schools but this takes a different dimension. It’s a parents choice whether to send their kids to a public, religious or independent school and each child attending these schools is one less burdening the public education system. It then makes sense to provide some subsidy to non-government schools especially when fee-paying parents cannot opt out of paying taxes which fund public schools even though their kids don’t rely on public education. Hence, this subsidy supports parental freedom to choose rather than the state condoning religious education over non-religious education.

Another side of the state-church separation concept is the protection of one’s beliefs from state interference. Australia could soon legalise same-sex marriage and this will of course mean government institutions that will recognise and officiate same-sex unions. The water gets murkier when considering broadly drawn anti-discrimination laws applying to private individuals and businesses which risk penalising beliefs about religious concepts such as marriage rather than genuine discrimination.

In Ireland, a Christian baker willing to serve a gay customer, but not specifically to bake a cake with a message supporting marriage equality that is anathema to his personal beliefs, was convicted of discrimination and fined. It makes no sense for government to police private thought in this manner when the customer is free to seek a secular baker or to contribute a negative review discouraging others from patronising the business based on the owner’s refusal.

Section 116 of our constitution says that

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

 However, no law has yet been repealed because of this rule and it does not even apply to state governments. A narrow take on the wording has meant that parliamentarians continue to swear on holy books when taking on office and Christian prayer continues to be tradition in some government ceremonies

Nonetheless, church-state separation remains a cornerstone of western civilization in practice in the post-enlightenment era. It allows us the freedom to believe what we choose without being forced to support the beliefs of others and it is important that both things continue to remain protected when notions of the concept are applied by policy makers.

Lizzie Green, President of the MQ Labor Club

The separation of church and state is a concept that has been argued for hundreds of years, particularly in Western countries.

In America, in the First Amendment, it states:

            “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

When looking at separation of Church and State from an Australian perspective, we see an Australia with religious freedom, religious fairness and state neutrality with regard to religion by allowing all faiths equal access to the “public square”. Our constitutional act, Section 116, was based on the First Amendment in America.

Section 116 of the Australian Constitution states:

            “The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or 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.”

As a country, we have done quite well with separating the church and the state, but there is still a need to maintain vigilance.

The recent rise of the religious right has seen an increase in activity surrounding their views particularly within the education sector. Interventions into the Safe School Programs and the School Chaplaincy Programs are two instances of where the separation of church and state doctrine have been compromised.

Leaders within the education sector feel that teaching students anti-bullying messages are worthy and not necessarily related to the small section in the curriculum regarding sexual preferences. These same leaders would appreciate student counsellors and social workers rather than religious chaplaincy.

In the 2011 Census, 13.1 million Australians identified with some denomination of Christianity, while 4.7 million Australians said that they identified “no religion” when asked about their religion. That means a significant amount of the Australian population, when taking into account atheism and agnosticism as well as “no religion”, may not appreciate the intrusion of religious doctrines into government policy.

There has also been a noticeable decline of Christianity in Australia, particularly while our country is becoming more multicultural. We should ensure there is a continued separation of church and state when making laws, so that we continue to be inclusive and respectful to all Australians, not just ones who believe in Jesus and God.

Not too long ago, the Australian Christian Lobby asked the government to “override” anti-discrimination laws during the plebiscite campaign regarding marriage equality, so that they could run a negative and hateful campaign. This intrusion of the ACL on Australian law is an example of the negative influence that the church tries to exert at times.

The separation of church and state is important in modern day society, and we should continue to ensure everyone is represented in the law equally, not just one dominant group having their say.