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Church & State

January 12, 2012 – 4:37 pm33 Comments

By David Werdiger
On these pages, Rachel Sacks-Davis accused the Orthodox Rabbinate of acting more like evangelical Christians when it came to responding to the gay marriage debate.

The so-called “separation between church and state” is enshrined in section 116 of our constitution, which 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. While this seems to be loosely based on the first amendment to the US constitution, the highest courts in the US have tested the separation to a far greater extent than have we.

In any case, this section makes it very clear that we are a democracy, and not a theocracy. Marriage is an institution enshrined in (secular) legislation. Anything the Church or the Rabbinate say about an issue like gay marriage carries no weight. So why do religious groups comment, and what do they seek to achieve by getting involved in such a debate?

Let’s take a step back and consider the extent of the separation between religion and state in Australia. As indicated earlier, it’s far less so than in the US. We continue to debate the issue of religious instruction in public schools, and there is plenty of government support for religious schools and institutions. The Secular Party of Australia would like a far greater separation than we already have, including teaching of “secular values” in schools, the removal of any religious references. They feel that while separation is enshrined in the constitution, Australia is practically more of a pluralistic theocracy, where the state supports many religions.

To understand this, we have to look beyond religion (in the way that it relates to the state) and instead to the values that underpin our western democratic society. These are commonly referred to as Judeo-Christian values, because their source is biblical, and because while the founders of modern western societies like Australia and the US were themselves Christian, they sought to create states that embodied their values, and balanced them with the principles such as equality for all, and freedom of religion for their citizens.

The slogan of the Secular Party is “Freedom of religion and freedom from religion”. What they seek to do is break with the religious values that underpin our society so that it no longer “weighs down” secularism with its absolutism and old-fashioned dependence on that archaic Bible. It seems to me that in fact they are actually mandating the pseudo-religion of “secularism” to replace the support for any other religions that we have now.

Much of the objection to gay marriage takes the form of a slippery slope argument. That is, we are against X not on the grounds that X itself is bad, but rather because if we allow X, then it will lead to Y and Z, which are things we definitely don’t want. Interestingly, this is similar to the principle in Pirkei Avot 1:1 of making a ‘fence’ around the Torah (beware of anything that could lead to dancing).

While the defence against this argument is usually that the chain of logical implication is not established, with the likelihood of gay marriage being legalized here, the polyamory community has jumped on the bandwagon, and sees this as an important step in allowing their relationships to be legally recognized. This style of argument is also used by the right against euthanasia and genetic engineering. However, those on the left rely on similar arguments against such technologies as genetically modified crops.

Uriya Shavit writes a great piece in Azure about the Muslim Brotherhood’s idea of democracy. Strange as it may seem, their ideal society borrows much from democratic values, yet maintains Islamic law above all. It’s not quite the theocracy that operates in Iran or Saudi Arabia.

The common factor in all these examples is the growing chasm between the historical values of a society, often absolute and based on religion, and their contemporary ones, which are relative and fluid.

What sort of society do we have? What sort of society do we want in the future? What are the values of a truly Godless, secular society? Is it one where PETA and Peter Singer elevate the rights of animals at the expense of humans and we euthanize those people who are too great a burden for us to maintain? These shifts happen over decades, not months, which is why the slippery slope argument often raises its head in debates like this.

I venture that the argument of religious groups against gay marriage are a reflection of their discomfort with the moral relativism in society today. The family unit is one of the building blocks of society, and an essential element in intergenerational cultural transmission. Seeing it being tampered with is a signal that the divergence between traditional religious values and contemporary values has clicked another notch. They see the values of our society as a house, with Judeo-Christian values as the foundation. Chip away too much at the foundation, and the whole house comes crumbling down.


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  • Larry Stillman says:

    Come now David, your slippery slope argument is a red herring and an exaggeration.

    Given that religious people of all stripes (including in the Jewish community) have displayed their capacity to engage in then justify all sorts of moral, sexual and criminal activity, normative behaviour that protects people (and animals) is about good behaviour, and should not be absolutely tied up with that strange beast called ‘Judeo-Christian’ values, something about which there is no consensus, though conservative Protestants, Catholics and orthodox Jews might believe it politically expedient to claim that there is such an animal. There was no real foundational and moral house to begin with. It was a house of cards built on oppression and suppression.

    As society has progressed, we have realized , that for example slavery along with child labour is an evil, that battering wives and children is not culturally acceptable, and that burning people at the stake is no longer acceptable, though it was in the past, and so on.

    And the same applies to the recognition of the rights of sexual minorities with the proviso that they, as any other person, do no harm to others, particularly children.

    The price of the suppression of what could be called good sexuality in the name of religion is seen in the abuse that has particularly afflicted the Catholic and latterly, the frum communities as well as the sexual problems that exist in Muslim countries (the hatred of gays, misogyny and so on).

  • R B says:


    The issue of sexual crimes done by some priests and rabbis is irrelevant for this discussion, it is pure demagogy. Defintely after both religious communities condemned that crimes. Please refer to the point.

    R B

  • frosh says:

    I write my comment as someone who has angered the militant/political secularists via my critiques of them. For example See my article here, as well as my comments under this other article.

    I think that the slippery slope argument from opponents of legalising same-sex marriage is an especially weak one, given that even if we slide down the metaphorical slop, there’s hardly a deadly crocodile infested river for us to fall into anytime soon. If some polyamorous relationships get state recognition, then who really cares anyway? Who is really harmed?

    While I do support legalising voluntary euthanasia, I can recognise that the slippery slope argument has more merit in that debate, given that it involves an issue of life/death, than in discussions of marriage law.

    Having said all this, I don’t care much for the institute of civil marriage. However, since the institute of civil marriage does exist, I see little to no harm in it being extended to same-sex attracted or even some polyamorous relationships. I am yet to hear or read of a good reason to use the institute of civil marriage as a means of discrimination against same-sex attracted people.

  • Rachel SD says:

    Hi David,
    Being a pluralistic state would entail supporting people of different faiths to practice their own religions, not supporting people of different faiths to tell others how to live. The secular party are wrong because they try to curtail religious peoples’ rights to practice their own religions, but they are right that principles from individual religions shouldn’t affect matters of public policy, particularly when the principles are discrimatory. By the way, polygamy is legal in some instances in Israel and was for most of Jewish history part of halakhic marriage so your slippery slope argument (and positioning of Australian civil marriage as a Judeo-Christian value) makes even less sense than it first seems to.

  • Eric Glare says:

    Just how many of the great moral progressions of our society have been built on the foundation of Judeo-Christian values? -vote to women and indigenous Australians; sodomy decriminalisation (practiced by more straights than gays); no fault divorce; anti-discrimination legislation on sexuality, gender, marital status, disability, etc. Really it has been those with Judeo-Christian values claiming credit for the ‘foundation’ after a new wing as been added which they rarely help build. Whilst I think separation of state and religion should be enacted without the current hypocrisy, the more compelling issue is separation of biology and religion. Why should I suffer a life of discrimination and stigma because my innate biology offends someone else’s religious beliefs? Why should my religious beliefs in the good of my non-choice sexuality be continually overrun by other people’s beliefs? Data on the religiosity of our society says very clearly that the “house” built on Judeo-Christian values has indeed crumbled with a few parapets supported by a diminishing number of heterosexuals seeking a fabulous venue and pomp for their wedding.

  • MichaelF says:

    Rachel: “The secular party are wrong because they try to curtail religious peoples’ rights to practice their own religions.”

    Can you give an example?

  • Gregory says:

    I don’t think anyone really thinks religion is going to disappear. We’re not heading towards a godless society. What we need to head towards is a society that allows for all it’s citizens to be treated equally.

    The best way to do that is to apply laws that don’t reflect any one religion.

    It seems to me that the majority of opposition to equality in marriage comes from religious people, and then only a very vocal minority that want to use their religion as a weapon to beat every one else into submission.

    Cries of damage to families is pure rot, not based on any facts, but based on the perception that some strange supernatural being ordained what a family means.

    That’s exactly the sort of attitude religious interference that needs to be held in check

  • M A Clarke says:

    To RB on the comment to Larry Stillman, ‘The issue of sexual crimes done by some priests and rabbis is irrelevant for this discussion': this example was only one that Mr Stillman gave as a rebuttal to your argument that all the good ‘values’ in our society, those that we surely wish to retain, can only be derived from the Judeo-Christian tradition, that ‘house’ whose ‘foundations’ you are striving to preserve. Actually, we human beings place attributes such as compassion, honesty and selflessness in a positive category irrespective of our adherence (or otherwise) to any particular faith-based system.

    It is not uncommon for the religious apologist to defend themselves against criticism with the claim that those presenting the case are themselves ‘religious'; the irony is that the religious apologist seems to intend the description as an insult.

    The Secular Party of Australia promotes the protection of basic human rights, including the freedom to practise religion to the extent that such practice does not diminish the rights of others. I agree with MichaelIF in that Rachel SD should provide supporting evidence for her statement.

    I do feel that religious organisations and their members ought to focus a little more on their own marriages and wellbeing, instead of spending so much time seeking to ruin the lives of others.

  • frosh says:

    I know the question was addressed to Rachel, but when someone bowls a long-hop, I can’t resist despatching it to boundary.
    While the secular party promises freedom of religion, Bruce Llama (the alter ego of Greg Storer,the Secular Party candidate in my seat at the previous federal election) has previously stated:
    “There should be no doubt in your mind that religion is poison. Teaching children about religion is psychological abuse, and should be stopped.”
    How would you reconcile this statement with the promise of freedom of religion?
    Surely that “should be stopped” line is all about imposing non-belief on believers?

  • Gregory says:

    Just to make it clear, I do not belong to the Secular Party of Australia at present.

    It is true that I was a candidate at the last election and part of the Secular Party of Australia at the time.

    I suggest someone from the party lobs that back at you.

  • John Turner says:

    Freedom of religion is about letting each adult believe and worship whatever they wish about something outside the natural world. That doesn’t mean the religious believer should be free to teach an impressionable young child the rubbish the adult believes in a state funded or state subsidised school environment. You don’t appear to understand the difference between freedom of religion, indoctrination and justice for a child.
    One of the most evil concepts ever adopted was the Jesuit concept, “Give me the child to the age of seven…….”

  • Gregory says:


    Help me out here,I can’t find that quote from the Llama website, perhaps it was before I was a member of the party. It’d be nice if you’d give the correct reference, that way we can read quotes in context if we so desire.


  • frosh says:

    Greg, it took me 10 seconds to find the quote via Google:


  • R B says:

    John Turner,

    The usage of the term “rubbish” by you exposes it all – you do not respect neither other peoples’ beliefs, nor their right to educate their children according to their own values – a basic right in a pluralist society. What you say is that the right for receiving state-subsidised education for his/her kids depends on his/her belief, even if the education adheres to the requirements of a modern and democratic society.

    This is neither “a society that allows for all it’s citizens to be treated equally” as Gregory wrote above, nor “freedom to practise religion to the extent that such practice does not diminish the rights of others” as M A Clarke wrote. I would call this “secular theocracy”.

    BTW, I do not have any problem with same-sex marriage.

    R B

  • M A Clarke says:

    Here is the official position of that party.

    http://www.secular.org.au/mnu-policy-details: ‘Only secularism can guarantee religious freedom, and we endorse this freedom. However those who adhere to faith-based morality frequently seek to impose their religious views on the entire population.’

    http://www.secular.org.au/mnu-viewpoints/mnu-individual-freedom-and-choices: ‘The Secular Party believes in the free expression of religious views, so that the nature of many such views should be more readily apparent.’

    So the comment that the Secular Party ‘try to curtail religious peoples’ rights to practice their own religions’ is not supported.

    From the website, there is a clear problem with the indoctrination of children, as all have observed here. So the question becomes: is the child an individual in his/her own right and therefore should be protected from indoctrination (religious or political) until he/she has obtained majority, or is the child merely a piece of property, an extension of the parent, with none of the rights that the religious adult takes for granted?

  • R B says:

    A child is, first of all, his/her parent’s child. Not the state’s child.

    None of us would like to live in a society, in which the state decides for parents how to educate their children. We all know which type of regimes do so.

    I am not talking about the means of education (e.g. education by beating should be banned), but about the values and culture.

  • M A Clarke says:

    ‘A child is, first of all, his/her parent’s child. Not the state’s child.’

    A child *belongs* to neither the state nor the parent. A child is not property.

    Therefore it is not appropriate to exploit the child’s vulnerable mind by teaching concepts as truth for which there is no evidence. We have plenty of evidence to show that qualities such as compassion, justice, equality and freedom lead to more stable and prosperous societies; children should be encouraged to embrace modern standards of ethics. We do not have evidence that the ‘truths’ that religious organisations teach are in fact true (e.g. angels, talking snakes, transubstantiation, winged horses that fly you from Mecca to Jerusalem in one night, virgin births, green light for selling your daughter into slavery, the death sentence for homosexuals/adulterers/witches, etc etc). Religious organisations are interested in self-propagation. If they did not have access to the impressionable minds of children they would not be able to do this. If their teachings were so marvellous and their perpetuation assured by one or more deities, they would not need to do this.

    Likewise, the state has no business brainwashing children with political ideologies, again for the purpose of self-propagation. As RB has pointed out, this is what totalitarian regimes do, and is antithetical to how liberal secularists propose that we should conduct our affairs. I would never support any group that condoned that form of ‘education’.

    Many schools are opting to teach comparative religion, so that children learn about and understand multiple religions. This is an excellent idea for a multicultural society, and one that I wish all schools were required to adopt, including faith-based schools.

    Parents should lead by example, not force their children into accepting unsubstantiated belief systems.

  • Daniel Levy says:

    The people opposed to the marriage of same-sex couples are disgraceful bigots who will be remembered with the same venom as slave owners, and all those who oppressed the rights of others in history.

    You’ve wasted your lives on superstition and ignorance. Good job, you used your one opportunity in this universe to be a complete buffoon for (on average) 80 whole years.

  • AkivaQ says:

    Hi David,

    Good to read your thoughts on gay marriage and how “Judeo-Christian” values protect us from the supposed perils of ‘moral relativism’.

    The discussion raises important questions on religious tolerance, human equality and moral leadership:

    1. Freedom of religion and conscience are universal moral principles as without such fundamental human freedoms proper limits to the power of individuals, groups or governments cannot be guaranteed.

    2. Equality before the law is a core democratic and liberal value and, seriously David, it is certain religions or ideologies that should face charges of cultural or moral relativism not those who support true enlightenment views about genuine human equality. Nothing is more likely to result in relative moral values than saying X-Y (e.g. Judeo-Christian) values are “the foundation” for our society rather than appealing to human reason and what all people share.

    3. Some will take heart in views that empathic solutions to Halachic dilemmas over same-sex unions, as promoted by Rabbi Steve Greenberg say, can be found. Others will continue to endorse the prevalent Orthodox Jewish positions, while still others will be yet more convinced that Orthodoxy’s moral absolutes fail to address some contemporary but timeless moral issues like same-sex relationships.

  • Marky says:

    Need to stop brainwashing kids with religion.. Teach them “sensible” things about a big bang after which came intelligent humans, their sustenance, livable weather and everything else. It all just conveniently arrived by itself just as needed.

  • Daniel Levy says:

    Marky, all your comment shows is that the Australian school system has failed you.

    You are scientifically illiterate, and that is simply a crying shame.

  • Marky says:

    Yes, you are super knowledgable.:…until the next scientific update, which brings another change in theory.

  • Daniel Levy says:

    Yes, that’s the thing about Science, Marky, we are amenable to change when the evidence presents itself.

    If only religion weren’t so intransigent, maybe less women would be having their clitoris cut off at birth and fewer people would die by terrorist attacks.

    Those who purport to have absolute knowledge are charlatans and liars, and weak people like you will be easily manipulated by them.

  • Marky says:

    Your first response is exactly my point.

    Your second is done by a religion which started around 1300 years ago by idol worshippers, not my (or your) ancestors religion, so it is not relevant here.

    And re charlatans, liars and manipulation of the weak, we could argue for years. However, there is plenty of those traits in secular and anti religious society.

  • Daniel Levy says:

    Marky, the thing is that you view that as a negative. It is indisputably a good thing to be so humble as to admit that you could be wrong, and that you will be open to having your views changed with solid evidence. Religious intransigence – the idea that a bunch of desert savages 2000 years held the knowledge of our origin – is the ultimate arrogance and has led to the deaths of countless millions.

  • Marky says:

    Daniel, that you admit you could be wrong is definitely a positive for you personally(however, it is not as if all with this view are honest). However, it shows a weakness in your argument, that it is far from conclusive.

    To say the world and all its wonders just came into being by chance by itself, makes no sense whatsoever. There were and still are many scientists that have this view. And Afaik Torah does not contradict science.

    And our ancestors were far from being savages. There are many things that modern society has put a stop to in the past few years, which our teachings did not allow already thousands of years ago. Just two examples are wife beating and rape in marriage, but there are many more. They had a humane society.

    And the savages who led to the death of countless millions, were not our ancestors. In fact they were the victims of savages perpetrating the inquisition, crusades, progroms, holocaust and the rest. .

  • Eric Glare says:

    The argument is not whether secularism is a similar fanatical but opposing force to Christianity – your link, David, was written by a guy with a plank in his eye. The issue is about religious freedom and that means freedom of religion, freedom of religious belief even if they are atheist and freedom from religion. Christianity and Islam continually want to impose their religious belief and practice on other people not giving them a choice. Secularism maximises religious freedom for everyone. Secularism is about tolerance and equality not a shrine to atheism.

    The examples given of the prayer and the banner continually use ‘us’, ‘our’ and ‘we’ and are purposely designed so that when someone reads it they are taking the message upon themselves. They are attempts to snuff out any opposing religious belief, attempts to restrict religious freedom and say “this place is Christian”. We would not accept a banner saying “everyone should eat pig and oysters today”, let alone the more contentious “I am only a good person if I eat pig and oysters today”. Imagine starting a session of Parliament with that one. But that is effectively what the current prayers in Parliament do to my religious freedom and my worth as a person. Why start Parliament by telling me a majority of MPs believe I am evil? Even if their idea of Christianity includes my sexuality, their god was also the god of Leviticus where we were ordered to be stoned to death. Am I a fanatic because I think it is evil to say that murder was once righteous?

    In Australia and the US Christianity is so often forced down people’s throats, often by law, it seems anyone who is opposed is a fanatic. Fanaticism is a belief or behaviour involving uncritical zeal; excessive irrational intolerance of opposing views and that fits the author of David’s link perfectly as it does Christians who would seek to give public institutions their religious ethos. Secularism is anti-fanatical.

  • Eric,

    Some secularists and atheists act very fanatically. You probably see this as a contradiction. It’s just wanting to impose your “belief system” on others in a fanatical way.

    Here is someone who recognizes the positives in religion and wants to see them adopted by atheists and maybe secularists too (or maybe he just wants to have his cake and eat it too).

  • Eric Glare says:

    David, it is far better that a secularist acts fanatically than someone from an organised religion, as being fanatical about secularism calls for everyone to have freedom of religion as much as is possible without diminishing someone else’s choice -something few organised religions are willing to do. Being fanatical about atheism on the other hand has lead to diminished freedom such as in China and USSR. Fortunately, most atheists believe in secularism or simply do not care enough to be involved.

  • Marky says:

    Secularists are against teaching religion to ones own children(as was posted by one of them a few posts back).

    Sounds to me like communist Russia.

  • As usual, great insight from Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks – “The Limits of Secularism” http://standpointmag.co.uk/node/4264

  • AkivaQ says:

    Hi David, thanks for making the link to this article.

    I looked at this during the week and would encourage people to read and respond to the insights in The Limits of Securalism.

    1. It is largely unproblematic to argue, as Rabbi Sacks does in his book The Great Partnership, that science analyses the world and religion synthesises meaning so they can indeed be complementary.

    2. The controversial part is to claim that “We need religion to explain the meaning of human existence”. In philosophical terms this quite simply begs-the-question, is religion THE way to meaning in life.

    3. He overreaches in suggesting that only through religion can we maintain “our Western sense of human dignity”, “of a free society” and “our understanding of moral responsibility”.

    4. In fact, numerous secular defences based on ethics, humanism, reason, social and political philosophy exist for each of the values or institutions that Chief Rabbi Sacks mentions.

    5. Significantly in the context of the discussion above, it is liberal democracy and the use of reason, rather than religion (or “Judeo-Christian values”), that provide the secure foundations for a free society with respect for human equality and universal human dignity.

    Just consider the Biblical, Talmudic or even later Rabbinic views on gender differences, homosexuality or Jewish ‘exceptionalism’ say in contrast to modern egalitarian responses to such issues.

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