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Constitutionally Australia is a religious country

  • 03 November 2014

What is the place of religion, especially Christianity, in a supposedly secular society? Courier Mail opinion writer Margaret Wenham argues that Australia should follow the French Government’s example in banning religion from the public square.

After recommending the French Government’s 15 point charter on secularism that includes a ban on religious apparel from the classroom, she asks: 'Could that be taken further, expanding it to all schools that receive government funding and, then, eventually to wider society, where we would put our citizenship first and personal religious beliefs firmly second?'

I have to disagree. The reality is that liberal, Western democracies like Australia owe as much to Christianity as they do to historical movements like the Enlightenment and British institutions like the Westminster system of government and the common law.

That’s why parliaments around Australia begin with the Lord’s Prayer and the Australian Constitution’s preamble includes the words 'Humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God'.

Australia’s legal system and institutions, while being secular in nature, also draw heavily on Christian ethics and morality, best illustrated by the ten commandments and the fact that, for years, it was customary for those involved in trials to swear on the Bible.

Freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, in addition to being an essential part of Australian democracy, are also embodied in international rights and conventions. 

When choosing a school, for example, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights guarantees the right of parents to select a school that provides a religious and moral education 'in conformity with their own convictions'.

As such, and notwithstanding the Biblical admonition to 'render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s', citizens have the right to express and live by their religious beliefs.

In Victoria, for example, even though the legislation is criticised for curtailing religious freedom, it does at least allow doctors to refuse to undertake an abortion if such a medical practice is against their religious beliefs.

It’s also true that the various state based anti-discrimination laws, as they currently operate, allow exemptions for faith-based schools in relation to who they employ. Such exemptions are based on the argument that faith-based schools have a strong religious commitment that entails discriminating against some types of personal relationships.

To argue that religion should be restricted to the home and places of worship, instead of being expressed in the broader society, is also inherently undemocratic. 

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