Religion might be falling on hard times in the West but questions about religious freedom are as relevant as ever.
On the first of this month, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released their Annual Report, shining a spotlight on religious oppression around the world.
Closer to home, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) has released its Consultation Paper on religious schools’ exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act. The final report was due last month but will now be released in December due the overwhelming number of submissions made by the public.
Simply put, Westerners in general — and Australians in particular — care deeply about religious freedom. With the major parties becoming increasingly secular, the need for an unashamed Christian voice in Australia’s parliaments has never been greater. It is our privilege and our calling at Australian Christians to be just that voice.
We see it as our role to help set the record straight on religious freedom in Australia. There is a myth that Australia is a secular country — that the separation of church and state in Australia was motivated by our nation’s desire for freedom from religion.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Though Australia has no Bill of Rights, freedom of religion was one of several human rights etched into the Constitution. Section 116 ensures 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”.
Since the 1960s especially, secularists have used Section 116 to argue that Australian governments should not provide funding for church initiatives, and that Christianity and other faiths should keep their influence out of politics. But that was neither the wording nor the intent of the Constitution. Its drafters did not seek to keep the voice of religion out of the political sphere, but the opposite: they hoped to stop the government’s overreach into religious life.
On the issue of funding for churches, the High Court has consistently ruled that the government can help churches, so long as it does not preference certain denominations over others.
Throughout Australian history, there has been far more complementarity between church and state than separation of church and state. The most obvious example is the series of Church Acts, passed by various colonies beginning in 1837, which provided state aid for church construction and clergy stipends.
Stuart Piggin and Robert Linder argue that thanks to the Church Acts, “the Australian colonies became well supplied with the means of grace, and thus, when federated, became one of the most ‘Christianised’ nations on earth in terms of values.” They add that “the framers of the Australian Constitution, whatever their intention, succeeded only in legislating for freedom of religion, not freedom from it”.
Cooperation between church and state was also a hallmark of the government led by Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Robert Menzies. It is a cooperation that still furnishes the nation with a vast network of social welfare. Australia today has the largest percentage of church-based charities in the Western world.
At the time of Federation, the vast majority of Australians identified with a Christian church, saw their nation as a Christian country, and shared an ethos of ‘freedom with responsibility’.
Australia’s Christian heritage gave us more than just freedom of religion. We enjoy a constellation of freedoms today because of our Christian forebears. The freedoms that Australians have long taken for granted are one of the most enduring achievements of vital faith.
These include human rights enshrined in the Constitution, like the right to vote (Section 41), protection against unjust seizure of property (Section 51), and the right to trial by jury (Section 80)—as well as implied rights like freedom of conscience, speech, association and worship.
So next time you hear someone say that the separation of church and state grants Australians freedom from religion, be sure to set the record straight. It was religion — Christianity — that gave Australians the freedom to practice their faith without interference from the government, and that gave Australians all of their other freedoms as well.
Today, most political parties have secularised and surrendered the fight for robust protections for people of faith. However, Australian Christians have vowed to hold the line and continue our nation’s proud legacy of religious freedom. We covet your support for this most important of political battles.