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Issue #1797      October 4, 2017


Church and state can never mate

Attempts to explicitly recognise God and represent “divine providence” as the “ultimate source of law” in the Australian Constitution when it was being drafted at the end of the 19th century were unsuccessful. Instead Section 116 of the federal Constitution provides for a separation of the state and religion. However, the struggle for religious influence is still alive and well today. The question of the separation of state and church is the elephant in the room in the struggle for marriage equality. In fact, the current debate has been turned on its head by religious fundamentalists in the “No” campaign who claim that marriage equality would deny religious freedom.

In keeping with his Christian beliefs, the government of John Howard changed the Marriage Act in 2004 to specifically refer to marriage as “the union of a man and a woman.” As a result the law must be changed before marriage equality can be introduced.

Labor Senator Penny Wong hit the nail on the head when she said: “The problem in all of this, of course, is the application of religious belief to the framing of law in a secular society.” She continued, “Religious attitudes to marriage continue to impact on much of the political debate that has delayed the recognition of the marriage equality rights of the gay and lesbian community.”

Marriage is not the only area where religious belief has been incorporated in the framing of the law or denied people their rights.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Response to Child Sexual Abuse revealed the practice by churches of covering up by the clergy of sexual abuse of children, acting on a belief that the church is above the law of the land on moral questions.

The Howard government’s National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) provided evangelists from groups such as the Access Ministries, access to children in public schools. As to their objectives, these were spelt out by head of Access Ministries Evonne Paddison: “In Australia, we have a God-given open door to children and young people. Our Federal and State Governments allow us to take the Christian faith into schools,” she said. “We need to go and make disciples.”

At one stage Access Ministries taught 130,100 Victorian school children in 940 schools. From time to time criticisms have been raised about their curriculum, such as the singing of unscientific creationist songs and teaching that homosexuality, masturbation and sex before marriage are sinful.

The state provides assistance to church organisations by such means as tax exemptions; by handing them highly profitable contracts when privatising services; or through state aid to church schools – the latter being another highly controversial measure which was unsuccessfully challenged in the courts. The Lord’s Prayer is still read at the beginning of parliamentary sessions.

The church has played an important role in the oppression of women. In Queensland and NSW abortion can result in a criminal record. Wage inequality has its origins in the church’s teachings that women are chattels belonging to their husband and that the male is the bread-winner. Hence historically they were not seen as requiring a decent wage. The propagation of such values suited capitalism as it provided a cheap labour force that could be drawn on more extensively when required. After all, a full wage would enable a woman to gain economic independence and be in a better position to assert her independence and also to be able to leave an abusive relationship.

Many of the church’s powers have been eroded, some in small ways, but non-the-less significant. Women no longer earn 54 percent of the male wage as determined in the Harvester Decision in 1907. It is possible now to make an affirmation in court instead of swearing on a bible or other religious volume. Birth certificates no longer carry the term “illegitimate” when a baby is born out of wedlock. The “sin” of sex outside wedlock is largely dated, but not completely, as a concept.

The fact that Australia is one of the few western countries where the LGTBI community is denied marriage equality speaks volumes for the grip of socially conservative religious forces on Parliament and some sections, albeit diminishing, on society. This situation is not confined to marriage equality. Marriage equality is not an issue for the churches to decide, it is one for Parliament about a human right called equality before the law.

Next article – Dear Prime Minister and Shadow Prime Minister

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