Separating fact from fiction

Monday 23 November 2009 2:13 AM

Most of those who invoke the doctrine of the "separation of church and state" in political discourse these days evidence little grasp of it's actual meaning. It's become a kind of popular Dawkinsian rallying cry for the "new" atheism. Peter Pelzer (Letters, 20/11) is but the latest of many, with his call for greater financial "separation". The common idea seems to be that religious faith has no rightful place in public life or policy.

In fact the historic principle of church-state separation has little directly to do either with any person's belief system or with the modern phenomenon of tax exemptions or deductibility. Rather, it's about whether a particular religious institution is an organ of the state. Unlike Britain, Australia is not and has never been a country where the state is constitutionally enmeshed with any religious body, to the great relief of Christians and secularists alike.

The Australian taxation system makes special provision for religious bodies, not because of anything they believe, but in recognition of their contribution to the well-being of society generally and the marginalised in particular. The emphasis is on their non-profit charitable status. Anyone objecting to that might try envisioning a health or welfare system without them.