Separating Church & State – A Call to Action! – Leslie Cannold at the GAC

Posted by on April 27, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 2 comments

Leslie Cannold delivered a very important presentation on day 3 of The Global Atheist Convention, about the separation of church and state in the Australian government, and the fact that this division, or lack thereof, has given inroads for the teachings of creationism and Intelligent Design in the nation’s schools. She pointed out the failings of our political system, the loopholes being used by religious organisations, and what we can do about it.

“But I thought the constitution says we have separation of church and state,” I hear you say.

Well, our constitution was written in such a way that it might seem that we were meant to, but the wording is ambiguous enough that the Australian Parliament has interpreted it in a different way. The section of the constitution that covers the separation of church and state is Section 116 which reads:

“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.”

This on the surface seems like a declaration that Australian governmental practices were intended to be secular in nature, and that religion should be kept out of the political sphere. But there is some controversy over the wording of this tract which gave rise for the establishment of the mandatory chaplaincy system in our schools, where religious education must be taught for an hour a week in all primary school classrooms. This was pushed by groups like the ACL (Australian Christian Lobby), who we have seen is actually a small group with very few members, but who use their media clout to pretend to stand for all Australian Christians.

“So we’re not a secular country? What does the constitution of the USA say?”

The First Amendment of the United States constitution states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

This is possibly the single most important part of the United States constitution. At first glance it would seem that Section 116 of the Australian constitution and the First Amendment of the United States constitution are very similar, which they are. But the inroad for religious (read: Christian) education in Australian schools takes advantage of the difference between the American use of the word “of” where the Australian constitution reads “for”. It’s a very small difference, but it has made all the difference in this country for the rights of the people, where religious freedoms, and freedom from religion is concerned. I’m not sure if fully understand how they came to this conclusion, but it shows how a single word can change everything. You can read more about it here, the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) case of 1981.

Because of this interpretation of a single word in Section 116, the Government has backed the Chaplains In Schools Program, where an unqualified volunteer delivers an hour a week’s worth of information about Christianity and the bible. On its surface the provision says that the volunteer can be from any religious background, but because most of the chaplains are chosen by evangelical Christian groups, 98.5% of the chaplains are Christian, and are teaching Christianity.

She also highlighted the High Court Challenge being launched by Ron Williams, fighting for a truly secular education for his children. You can read about it here.

I don’t really feel I can do Leslie’s talk any justice here, she is so very knowledgable and passionate about this subject. But what is important here is that we can take action. She highlighted a few things we can do:

The separation of church and state is necessary unless we want to live in a theocratic society, whose laws and regulations are based upon a holy text rather than the needs of a society.

This video by Hungry Beast gives a good run-down of the Chaplains in Schools program and how it is being implemented in our schools.

You can download the slides from Leslie’s talk here (.pdf).

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  1. It’s important to distinguish between chaplaincy and religious instruction. They are two separate (bit inter-related issues). Chaplains do not (usually) teach SRE. Chaplains are paid, SRE teachers are volunteers. SRE teachers are classroom based. Chaplains are ‘freerange. Both are an assault on secular education.

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  2. Thanks for writing the post…………will have to check out the New Zealand laws.

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