On the 4thof December 2017, Scott Morrison addressed the House of Representatives on the amendment to the Marriage Act, and said: “In fact, separation of church and state was set up to protect the church from the State, not the other way around. To protect religious freedoms.”1
Although it had its initial contributions from people like Augustine of Hippo2 and continued with people like Martin Luther, its first modern manifestation was in the work of John Locke, who argued that the government lacked authority in the realm of individual conscience, and this was something that could not be ceded to the government for it to control. Locke believed that this freedom of conscience must remain protected from government authority3. Voltaire defended some level of separation but ultimately supported the subordination of the church to the needs of the state4. Denis Diderot was a supporter of a strict separation of church and state, stating that ‘the distance between the throne and the altar can never be too great.’5
The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, written in 1786 by Thomas Jefferson, was one of the first modern codifications of the separation of church and state, but perhaps the most famous is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution which was adopted in December 1791 and which states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”6
While this is a fairly bald statement and covers other things, its intention with regard to religion is perhaps best explained by a letter Jefferson sent to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. In part, he said:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”6
The language of Section 116 of the Australian Constitution is derived from the First Amendment of the US Constitution and states:
“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”7
As explained by Thomas Jefferson, the separation of church and state is about the protection of thought, not action. That means you can believe what you like, but you cannot take any action to impose those beliefs on others or to punish those who do not accept those beliefs. The religious people whining about not being able to discriminate against others are part of the cohort of people who love to divide people into Us and Them, are lacking in empathy, and are unable to walk a mile in another’s shoes, and unable to fathom what it would be like to be part of the ‘Them’.
While the separation of church and state may have been initially to protect the religious from the state, it is now necessary for that separation to be strengthened to protect some of the more vulnerable members of our society from the religious.
- Augustine of Hippo (translation by H. Bettenson), 1972. The City of God. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1097 p.
- Feldman, N., 2005. Divided by God. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 306 p.
- Voltaire (translation by B. Masters), 2000. Treatise on tolerance. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 107 p.
- Diderot, D. (translation by J.H. Mason & R. Wokler), 1992. Political writings. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 225 p.