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Principles for an Australian policy on religion and state

By James Page - posted Thursday, 17 November 2011

The interaction between religion and state remains an extremely contentious issue, both within Australia and internationally. Within politics at all levels, it is still the case that political positions are sometimes re-enforced with appeals, usually dubious, to religious authority. Within Australia, we find ourselves in a situation where over one third of schools are managed by churches or church-related organizations. And the High Court of Australia is about to make an important ruling which may well have ramifications for the future relationship of religion and state in this country. In this context, I'd like to suggest three principles which may be useful in framing public policy on religion and state, and then to discuss some of the ramifications of these principles.

The first principle I'd like to suggest is that religion and religious belief ought to be thought of as a matter of individual conscience. I believe this is the understanding of separation of church and state as originally articulated by the framers of the US Constitution. The priority of individual conscience should not pose any problem for those committed to liberal democracy, for which freedom of conscience is and has always been an important principle. The priority of individual conscience is also an important principle in classical liberalism, such as in the work of John Stuart Mill. We may not agree with specific religious beliefs, but it is implicit within the operation of a liberal democracy that we ought to respect the right of individuals to hold those religious beliefs.

The second principle I'd like to suggest is that any policy on religion and state needs also to take cognizance of the right of free speech. Again, the notion of a right of free speech should not be something alien for a liberal democracy. The High Court within the past decade has recognized that there is an implied right of political free speech within the Australian Constitution, and it seems useful to regard this right as also applying to religious expression. Moreover, the right of free speech is enunciated in many human rights instruments, although perhaps most clearly in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I would suggest that free speech ought to include the right of those of religious faith to speak on social issues and to reference their faith when speaking on social issues. Similarly, those with no belief or an atheistic stance ought to be able to reference their position within the public domain in speaking on social issues. The right works both ways.


The third principle I'd like to suggest is that any policy on religion and state needs to respect freedom of religion, as reflected in the numerous human rights instruments dealing with this. I am thinking in particular of Articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the United National General Assembly resolution 36/24 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief, dated 25/11/81; the United Nations General Assembly resolution 48/128 Elimination of All Forms of Religious Intolerance, dated 20/12/93; and the UNESCO Declaration of Principles on Tolerance, dated 16/11/95. Respect for human rights has always been important for those committed to liberal-democratic principles. It is not merely a matter of our honouring our international obligations, but is a matter of our meeting our fundamental moral obligations.

What are some of the implications of these principles? On a national level it does seem that theistic references within the Australian Constitution must be extremely questionable. These are very much a relic of colonialism and of established religion. If we are now a genuinely pluralistic and multi-faith community, then it would follow that the theistic references within the Australian Constitution are an anachronism. So too, official prayers within Parliament must be extremely problematic. It would be simple to replace the Lord's Prayer with a time of private reflection and private prayer, which would reflect the principle that religion ought to be a matter of individual conscience.

Do the above principles necessarily mean that the churches and church organizations ought not be involved in the running of schools? Not necessarily. But the principles do require that we need to respect the autonomy of the student in terms of faith decisions. Of course, this is part of a professional approach to religious education. The professional religious educator does not assume any faith position on the part of the student, but rather seeks to inform the student about the different dimensions of religious faith. The above principles will make compulsory attendance of worship within church schools problematic, at least on a regular basis. This will be contentious, but the fact remains that one cannot force religious worship.

The above clarifying of the relationship of religion and state will probably be opposed by some people of faith, but ought not to be, and especially not by Christians. The notion of compulsory religion is foreign to the pages of the New Testament, and the evangelical churches in particular have rightly emphasized that any proper response to the Christian Gospel is a matter of individual decision. Indeed the postmodern society, where there are no certainties and everything is open to question, is an ideal environment where Christians can argue the value of faith and the value of the Christian Gospel.

The question of the relationship of religion and state is contentious and complex. This complexity is reflected internationally in questions which have not been touched upon in this essay, such as the wearing of religious dress and the use of religious symbols in public places; the operation of laws prohibiting religious vilification; and the rights of religious minorities. The contentious nature of religion and state is also reflected here in Australia in the fact that most politicians and political parties in Australia avoid this area. It is very much a political minefield. Yet having no policy is in fact bad policy. I believe it is time for politicians and political parties in Australia to be more assertive in this area, and in particular to be more assertive in emphasizing the fundamental freedoms and rights as outlined above.

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About the Author

Dr James Page is a writer and educationist, and a recognized authority within the field of peace education.

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