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Petition for “separation of state and religion or belief” 1: the Petition

Australia, like the US, has a Constitution prohibition of ‘establishment’ of religion by the Government. However, Australia ‘s High Court has stated, unlike the US Supreme Court, that this does not mean separation of church and state. A petition has been lodged with the Australian Senate to enact legislation that does so.

Why is this petition needed?

Take the example of subsidised religion in Australian state schools....

In 2006 the conservative Howard government decided that the state should pay for religion in public schools. Thus was born the National School Chaplaincy Programme. There are almost 3,000 such chaplains in Australian public schools, and the programme is expanding under the Labor government.... Exactly what chaplains are supposed to do is unclear. Guidelines suggest they are expected to provide spiritual guidance to the children, but at the same time it prohibits them from proselytising or from offering psychological counselling. Much evidence suggests that many of the chaplains in fact do both.... The chaplains aren't supposed to teach, but some have become involved in instruction activities. At Gympie State school in Queensland, the chaplain organised an attendance-optional lunchtime science lecture. The presentation featured John Mackay, an avowed creationist who maintains that dinosaurs co-existed with human beings.” [1]

In a High Court challenge in 2012, Australia's national school chaplaincy program was partly upheld. The Court struck down the Government's subsidies for school chaplains, but only because it found the method of funding unconstitutional since it was not authorised by legislation. That was quickly remedied.

On the larger issue of religious freedom, the Court declared that the constitution did allow chaplains in state schools. The constitution (S. 116) says that “no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any [public] office” and the claimant had argued that school chaplains faced a “religious test” for office. However, the court found that school chaplains were not Government employees, had no contract with the state and therefore held no public office. [2]

This ruling shows the importance of the petition which is a plea to interpret the Australian Constitution as upholding the broad principle of church-state separation. Until this happens, chaplains will continue to proselytise in state schools and will even continue to be funded by the taxpayers, since the Government has vowed to simply find another way to fund them.

Petition to the Australian House of Representatives
 

Entered into Hansard 13 December 2013

This petition of citizens of Australia draws to the attention of the House the fact that s.116 of the Australian Constitution prevents Parliament from making any law establishing any religion. However, in the 1981 Defence of Government Schools case the High Court said s.116 does not mean separation of church and state, but prohibits government from establishing a national state religion. Over thirty years have elapsed since that case. As recognised in the federal government’s Gonski report, critical inequalities between public and many private schools have developed; Australia’s multiculturalism has become more diverse; community values systems are more complex.

We therefore ask the House to legislate for separation of church and state in Australia in keeping with the changing values of contemporary Australians. We request: legislation that prohibits (1) government establishing any religion, not just a national religion, but providing any advantage to religion or non-faith as an effect of legislation (2) passing any law, or undertaking any administrative action that allows the sponsoring or supporting (financially or otherwise) of any religions or alternative non-faiths such as atheism. We ask the House to recognise the words of our first prime minister, Edmund Barton, that ‘the whole mode of government, the whole province of the State is secular’, allowing the manifestation of any belief or non-faith, subject only to limitation by law, but sponsoring or supporting none.

Notes

1. Katherine Stewart, “Australia's blurred separation between church and state”, Guardian, 29 April 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/29/australia-blurred-separation-church-state

2. “Chaplains safe despite High Court ruling: Roxon”, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 June 2012. http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/political-news/chaplains-safe-despite-high-court-ruling-roxon-20120620-20n2d.html

Background reading: Max Wallace: “Secularism is not atheism”, On Line Opinion, 10 November 2008.


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