21 March 2013
A campaign is underway to return Australia to its former status as a genuinely secular nation.
Australia was originally established on secular principles with clear separation between church and state. As Malcolm Fraser said, “Tony Abbott wants all Australians to be taught about Christianity, to be made to read the Bible. Does he not realise that our founding fathers decided that Australia should be a secular state? It was a deliberate act to reject the English idea of an established church. By that decision, there was a recognition that religions and different sects of religions should all be treated in the same way.” (The Age, 4 March 2013).
This boundary has been significantly eroded over the years since Federation.
The importance of reclaiming Australia’s secular heritage is the theme of the current tour by Sean Faircloth, Director of Strategy and Policy for the Richards Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Faircloth will be appearing at a number of venues across Australia and New Zealand, including the Sydney Opera House, Melbourne University and the Kyneton Mechanics Institute in regional Victoria.
Dr Meredith Doig, President of the Rationalist Society of Australia, said these presentations promise to be challenging and engaging.
“Our founding fathers had a clear vision of Australia as a secular nation,” Dr Doig said, “with a compulsory, free and secular education system. Now we have a divisive two-tiered system of well-off private schools and struggling state schools, and evangelicals are intruding into the government schools with Special Religious Instruction and Federally-funded chaplains.
“Secularism simply asks for a level playing field”, she said. “Everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but why should ordinary taxpayers – a quarter of whom are not religious at all according to the latest census – be subsiding religion? According to one senior journalist, government in Australia is probably paying more money to religious institutions than it pays for national defence and police forces combined (Jack Waterford, Editor-at-large, Canberra Times, 16 March 2013).
On 18 March, former High Court Judge Michael Kirby delivered the inaugural George Higinbotham Annual Lecture at RMIT University in Melbourne, and his chosen topic was Australia’s secular heritage. He said, “The principle of secularism is one of the greatest developments in human rights in the world. We must safeguard and protect it, for it can come under threat in contemporary Australia.”
Together with other atheist, humanist, rationalist, secularist and skeptic groups across Australia and New Zealand, the Rationalist Society of Australia, which is organising the Sean Faircloth tour, has released a Vision Statement [see sidebar] setting out important goals for re-establishing a secular Australia.
Their implementation would mean ensuring access for all – gays, pregnant unmarried women, couples ‘living in sin’ -- to state-subsidized schools and hospitals, uncompromised by religious bias; replacing religious proselytising in government schools with courses in comparative religion; and making sure there is “one law for all”, with no exemptions from anti-discrimination law for religious organisations, no sharia courts and Australian law taking precedence over canon law.
Sean Faircloth can be heard on Monday 25 March on Radio National’s Life Matters, and on Tuesday 26 March on Jon Faine’s Conversation Hour.
His major presentation in Melbourne is at Melbourne University:
Who: Sean Faircloth (Richard Dawkins Foundation)
What: “Reclaiming a Secular Australia”
When: 7pm on Tuesday 26 March
Where: “The Spot”, 198 Berkeley St, Parkville (Melbourne University’s Commerce Building)
Cost: $28 – tickets at Trybooking on www.trybooking.com/CHQZ
Manifesto for a Genuinely Secular Australia
Parliaments and Government
There must be clear separation between religion and the State.
There must be ‘one law for all’, with no recognition of parallel legal systems
- Religious institutions should not be permitted to exempt themselves from the law of the land. Canon law must not take precedence over Australian law.
- Sharia courts should not be officially recognised.
Religious organisations must be subject to the same laws as other organisations.
- The ‘advancement of religion’ should be removed from the statutory definition of charity, and religious organisations should not enjoy automatic tax exempt status.
- Religious organisations should be subject to anti-discrimination laws in employment and service provision.
- Government funding to religious organisations such as schools and hospitals should be subject to rigorous accountability to ensure compliance with anti-discrimination laws and the absence of proselytising.
Education must be strictly secular, not promoting any particular religion.
National and state curricula should include the study of a range of religious and non-religious worldviews, taught by professionally trained teachers.
- Government resources should not be used to support particular religious views, programs of religious instruction, or the employment of religious functionaries in educational settings.
Children must not suffer because of the religious views of their parents.
- Decisions about children’s healthcare should be based on evidence-based medicine, not the religious worldviews of their parents.
- No organisation, whether religious or not, should be allowed to restrict children’s education or to isolate them within closed communities.
Sex and Sexuality
There must be no discrimination on the basis of a person’s sex, sexuality or gender identity.
- Australian governments should not impose a religious bias on the definition of marriage, or on the right to adopt.
There must be freedom of reproductive choice, with no religious interference.
- Termination of pregnancy should be decriminalised in all States and Territories.
- Governments should make access to evidence-based sexual and reproductive health information and healthcare services universally available.
- Age-appropriate sex and relationships education should be included in national and state curricula.
Healthcare must be available to all regardless of the religious views of the provider.
- Public hospitals must not be allowed to restrict treatment on the basis of religious worldviews.
- Private hospitals must not refuse emergency treatment on the basis of religious worldviews.
Dying with Dignity
When facing the end of life, everyone must be guaranteed control over their own bodies, free from religious interference.
- ‘Advance directives’ should be given legal force.
- Physician-assisted suicide, with appropriate safeguards, should be decriminalised.
- Governments should fund non-religious palliative care services.