The Catholic Archbishop Chong was reprimanded by Prime Minister Bainimarama of Fiji for saying that the new constitution separating church and state would deprive Fijians of the right to worship in public. This is a common misrepresentation. However, Amnesty International has warned that this secular constitution still allows human rights violations. By itself, separation of church and state is not enough!
The Hon Michael Kirby AC, CMG was Australia’s longest serving judge when he retired from the High Court of Australia in 2009. He delivered a talk about church-state separation (secularism) at the RMIT law school in 2013. Here he sketches the development of secularism in France, the US, India, Malaysia and Australia.
Some opponents of church-state separation redefine it as “state neutrality” to allow their group, among others, to get state funding. Others try to discredit it by conflating separation of church and state with “atheism”. But it's a political, rather than a religious doctrine and its purpose is to help level the playing field in order to give a better chance for human rights.
The aim is to make sure that Human Rights always take precedence over religious demands. But how is this to be done? This useful list shows what the separation of religion and the state means in practice. Religion is protected from interference by the state - and vice versa.
In the 1630s, when most of Europe was convulsed by religious wars, Roger Williams decided that this needed to be stopped. He introduced — and put into practice — the powerful new idea that there should be a wall between church and state. In his colony in Rhode Island he erected a "wall" to protect "God's garden" (the church) from the impure world and, at the same time, to give religious freedom to all.
This AUSCAS factsheet on church and state in Australia puts it all in a nutshell — from 1836, when an exasperated Australian Governor Bourke wished the churches would ‘roll off state support like saturated leeches’ to 2008 when Bishop Tom Frame said they must be weaned off state support and not rely on the secular state to discharge their ‘heavenly charter’.
India's secular constitution is undermined by the "Personal Law" that governs family life according to one's religion. And there are other laws which may conflict with constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. These are the anti-conversion laws that ban religious conversion through force, "allurement" or fraud. Conservative Christian groups from abroad are keen to challenge these prohibitions.
Secularism is India's national ideal, recognised as the only way to unify a diverse nation. Although not always practised, it is entrenched in the Indian Constitution and confirmed by a landmark Supreme Court judgement. Excerpts from both are given here.
England has several different kinds of ecclesiastical courts. These use religious law, such as the Islamic Sharia, Jewish Halakha and Christian Canon Law. It was during the Reformation that the Church of England courts replaced the Catholic courts. However, the other ecclesiastical courts got official sanction just a few years ago under a law that lets them pose as arbitration tribunals and have their judgements enforced by the state.
Prof. Maurice Barbier says that separation of church and state prevents the state from supporting any religion or interfering with it ― and obliges religion to leave the public sphere open to all. When both sides respect the boundaries, secularism provides a framework for freedom of conscience, tolerance and democracy. Secularism does not guarantee human rights, but it helps make them possible.