Church, State And The Land Down Under

Back From The Outback

I've been on vacation in Australia. On our first day in Sydney, I read a sign for the month's activities at the Royal Botanical Gardens. One morning, the Gardens were hosting a "magical mystery tour" where children were encouraged to dress like a witch or wizard and would be taught "how to make your own wizardry spells." There have been no protests from any Australian equivalent of the Family Research Council or Jerry Falwell, though in parts of our country, I'm sure this obviously innocuous fairy-tale activity would be labeled a "demonic attack on Christian values." There were no protests because Australia appears to have no seriously organized Religious Right.

The Australian Constitution notes that governments "shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance...." I had breakfast one morning with a highly regarded "Queen's Barrister" (whose name is mentioned as a possible appointee to the Australian High Court, the equivalent of our Supreme Court). He said there had only been two or three significant High Court cases ever dealing with what we'd call "separation of church and state" issues. The biggest was a ruling 21 years ago, which permitted religious schools to get funding from the government. On the other hand, there are no prayers to open government-run "public" schools. There are also no efforts to excise evolution from school curricula, organize prayers at school athletic competitions, or post Scriptural statement in public buildings.

I asked the Barrister, "What would happen if somebody wanted to donate a monument engraved with a version of the Ten Commandments for display in a courthouse"? He laughed. "First," he said, "nobody here would be that generous." He continued that such an occurrence was unthinkable. When I told him that I probably did 1,000 interviews about church and state controversies each year, he seemed incredulous.

The Australian press finds some of our squabbles hilarious. I go back and forth between hilarity and depression myself. In the few weeks I was in the country, one major paper reprinted an item in The New York Times about a declaration from Inglis, Fla., which barred Satan from the town's boundaries. Another paper ran an item about Ohio's consideration of teaching "creationism" in public school science classes and having children choose between evolution, Biblical literalism and the theory that we are an experimental colony planted by outer space aliens. In other words, our constitutional crises are put forward as curiosities and perhaps as evidence of the generally backward nature of American culture and education.

I'm glad that Australia finds itself free from some of the controversies that have burdened the United States. However, it is clear that the nation has not had, and does not have today, the world's healthiest relationship between religion and government.

Australia's past includes clear religious bigotry toward native people. Aboriginal children, particularly those who were "half caste" (with one white parent) were forcibly taken from tribal parents and removed to camps run by religious groups. The idea was not only to indoctrinate them into Christianity, but to teach them skills to allow their employment as servants, who would then marry whites. All this was designed to "breed the black out" in three generations.

The practice didn't stop until the mid-1960s, and aboriginal people today call this the period of "The Missing Generation," where children lost their spiritual roots but were still largely excluded from white society. One of the most popular films playing in Australia during my visit was "Rabbit Proof Fence," a true story about the escape of two young women from a camp and their thousand-mile walk home. (Of course, I saw it.)

The 20-year-old decision supporting parochial school aid has also had damaging results (which foreshadow problems for Americans if the Supreme Court rules to support the Cleveland voucher program). So many millions of dollars flow from the Australian government to private, primarily religious institutions that several years ago, private school funding started to outweigh public school funding.

On the other hand, as we've argued stateside for years, with government funds come government regulations. Now, some Australian officials and health experts expect Catholic schools to teach about "safer sex" and artificial contraception, in violation of Catholic teaching, because the schools accept public funds. As a result, both taxpayers' freedom of conscience and, possibly, the autonomy of religious educators are being put to the test.

There is evidence that other alliances between religion and government are emerging, perhaps sowing the seeds for some of the same church and state issues we routinely address here.

Some of these divisive questions have already surfaced. A recent debate in Australia over stem cell research generated organized opposition, most of which had a tinge of religious reasoning as the basis for the disagreement.

In addition, an immediate controversy surrounds the Queen of England's appointment of Archbishop Peter Hollingsworth, the former head of the Anglican Church in Brisbane, as Australia's Governor General, her official governmental representative. Some people are disturbed by the appointment on principle, while others are questioning Hollingsworth's qualifications after he allegedly tried to cover up child abuse by some priests during his ecclesiastical tenure.

Vigilance, not complacency, may be the best attitude for Australia now. The country has a highly venomous snake that is so fast that it can strike six times before the victim is aware he should run away. As we learned in the United States, religious groups can quickly find charismatic leaders who woo politicians and seek to impose their beliefs on everyone through legislation. As with snakes, it is prudent to anticipate where you are walking, rather than find yourself bitten.