Secularism in Australia: Christians are not being attacked, just their special expectations.

The issue of secularism does not seem to be very well understood. This is particularly obvious in current discussions about Special Religious Education (SRI), religious chaplains, and religious lobbying of the government. A common misunderstanding is that secularism is the quashing of spiritual and religious beliefs in favour of an atheistic, unsympathetic government; that religious organisations will be shut down and that their ideas will be shunned and no longer welcome in public debate. This hostility towards religion may be true of some individuals, but is not of the guiding principle of secular government. At the heart of it, secularism ensures that the community of believers of any faith and non-believers can be happy in the knowledge that their faith or lack thereof is not disadvantaged or given advantage at the expense of any other. This is achieved by the State not imposing controls on the practice of religious observances, by not choosing a state religion (as there are on the United Kingdom and other European nations), and ensuring the rule of law applies equally across all people without exception. That is what secularism is supposed to ensure: freedom of and from religion; personal choice without that choice putting the individual at a disadvantage. The logical conclusion of this freedom is that people that count themselves as members of a religion or other instituted belief system can not expect the State to enact laws for the advantage of their or any other faith – as I’m sure they would agree with – and to expect fair and equal treatment before the law. It is incumbent on the faithful to understand that freedom of religion also imposes a level of neutrality to their beliefs so that they may enjoy this freedom.

With the level of sectarian depth of feeling and diversity shown recently, no one can deny that the public debate over church/state separation is causing friction. If the Australian government were to go back to a multicultural approach of ceasing; funding religious schools; mandating that SRI be offered via Education Dept policies; providing religious chaplains in public schools: and instead; funding sufficiently trained social workers or counsellors; revoking funding of all religious schools, and; not allowing lobbying from any faith based group, would we not be better off as a civil, modern, pluralistic society?

At the heart of the matter are the laws of Australia that specifically exempt religions from tax and the Australian Constitution that ensures religious freedom. Other than the Preamble that states in part, ‘humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God’(1), only Section 116 mentions religion. This section states 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 under the Commonwealth.

Now I’m not a constitutional scholar, but if each portion of this sentence is read individually, it shows that the government of Australia must not favour any religion or prohibit a faith from being expressed, or expect any government employee to have a religion. Basically, it ensures neutrality of government with respect to religious beliefs, therefore, freeing the government to institute laws that are to cover all Australians; do not exclude any from being subject to these laws or providing specific exemptions under the law. I see my point of view as a rational conclusion of Section 116.

So are the following programmes/laws un-constitutional[?]:
• The National School Chaplaincy Programme;
• Funding of faith-based schools;
• Allowing exceptions from the law for specific groups (ie. The Exclusive Brethren);
• Tax Exemption of religious organisations’ non-charitable, faith only activities (churches in general and their associated structures and processes that are only carrying out faith activities such as church services and paying clerics).

With regard to the Australian Taxation Office, it’s web site (2) specifically states that ‘Your organisation will be exempt from income tax … if it is a religious institution’ and describes a religion as ‘belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle, and acceptance of canons of conduct that give effect to that belief, but that do not offend against the ordinary laws’ (assuming ordinary laws as those of the Commonwealth). This grants tax exempt status to organisations such as Scientology. Additionally since the law considers “advancing religion” to be a charitable work, large religious bodies avoid taxes as if they are purely a charity.
So, we have the government of Australia providing tax free status to religions of all types, as long as their practices are not in opposition to the laws of the Commonwealth, freedom of religion guaranteed under the law and the government prohibited from establishing any religion. To my mind this leads to the logical conclusion that being exempt from tax and free to practice, surely says, religion must stay out of government and vice versa. Religion is separated from state.

Why then is it seen as acceptable for religious organisations to demand funding from the government for private schools, religious instruction in schools (SRI/CRE) and school chaplains for public schools? I say that it is not. With the Australian incorporated Catholic Church earning hundreds of millions of dollars per year, and the Anglican Church earning significant sums too, is it not expected (as they are private and tax exempt) that they are expected to fund their own schools with those revenues. Surely that is the purpose of making money, correct, to educate the faithful in their chosen faith?

The DOGS(3) trail of the 1980’s made a very broad judgement based on the use of the word ‘any’ in Section 116. It also seemed to add the word ‘one’ so that the sentence read “The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any one religion”. So the Commonwealth is free to establish laws for all religions, to the exclusion of any. Again I’m not a constitutional scholar, but I agree with the dissenting views of Justice Murphy on this one.

Based on my understanding of secularism as outlined here, all religious people must agree that to live in Australia implies they must agree to accept that all faiths are neutral before the law of the land; notwithstanding the actual beliefs of any historical figures that may have featured in Australia’s past; that their freedom is guaranteed by this neutrality and that they should celebrate their freedom by making it known that they accept them.

(1) For an understanding of the historical background of this statement, see the essay by Chrys Stevenson in The Australian Book of Atheism.



Originally posted at: by Richard