"Wall of Separation" – Church State relations in the US

According to an in depth report by John L. Allen Jnr, Bishop Thomas J. Curry of Los Angeles has launched a damning critique of the US’s defacto interpretation of their First Amendment to mean that there should be (in Thomas Jefferson’s infamous words) a “wall of separation” between “church” (read “religion”) and state.

This “separation of church and state” issue has been of some interest to me in my interfaith work–especially in the light of Victoria’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. I am interested to see how differently different nations–France, Turkey, Britain, the US, and Australia–have dealt with this issue, which is one of THE issues of our time, especially with the return of religion to a place of importance in world affairs.

Generally, I think we go about it pretty well here in Australia. We don’t go stupid about it (as, I think, the French, the Turks, and, yes, the US have), and perhaps we aren’t quite as PC about it as Britain is. I like to think that in some sort of lapsidaisical way we have got it fairly right here in Australia. That doesn’t stop quite a few anti-religious commentators trying to find a Jeffersonian version of the First Amendment hidden somewhere in our own Australian Constitution (of course, there is no such thing), and we still have our arguments about the place of religion in the public square. One only need remember the furore over publically funded chaplains in schools, not to mention the attacks on Cardinal Pell back during the NSW vote on embryonic stem-cell research.

It is interesting reading through the list of issues in Bishop Curry’s speech, and asking ourselves are these issues in Australia? Check this out:

First, as he has in the past, Curry sounded a note of caution about public funding for Catholic schools, such as voucher programs. He noted the irony that at the same time Catholic leaders have clamored for greater public support for church-run schools, they have also expressed growing concern for their Catholic identity. Curry noted that it’s tough to have both at the same time, since “he who pays the piper calls the tune.” “I suppose all of us want to have our cake and eat it too,” he laughed.

Second, Curry pointedly conceded in response to a question from the floor that, given his premises, there’s precious little constitutional justification for having publicly funded Catholic chaplains (or chaplains from any other denominational background) in either the armed forces or the prison system.

But there are also issues that simply have not yet been answered by any democratic nation and which urgently need to be, such as when the States does have to make decisions about the practice of religion (and this will be inevitable especially when “anyon can decide what’s religious and then demand that the government protect it”) on what grounds will those decisions be made? Curry pointed to:

a Florida case in which a municipality had proposed knocking down headstones in a cemetery to make mowing the grass easier. Both Christians and Jews objected on the grounds that the headstones had religious significance, and the judge actually spent weeks studying the theological and spiritual significance of burial rituals in both faiths. Curry argued that the case should have been decided on other grounds, such as basic fairness or due process, rather than having the court assess specifically religious questions.

That exactly reminds me of all the argument that went on at the VCAT court over the right interpretation of the Koran in the Islamic Council of Victoria vs Catch the Fire Ministries case here in Victoria. In the court of appeal, the appeal judges noted that it simply is not the role of the court to make decisions based on theology.

Finally, I was amused to read this:

“I go to celebrate Mass sometimes in the prisons, and every time I bring a small amount of wine with me, which is completely against the regulations,” Curry said. “Thank God, no one so far has arrested me.”

That happened to me once when I was a Lutheran pastor. I wasn’t arrested, but I was given a rough time by the prison guards!

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One Response to "Wall of Separation" – Church State relations in the US

  1. Patrick Roberts says:

    interesting… an unintended, genius aspect of democracy is that the state of the government will represent the state of the people. We needn’t impose any particular religion on our government. Whether or not our government is morally stable will reflect the moral stability of us, the people. So how are we doing?

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