Saturday, February 02, 2013

Australia, New Zealand, America

a book review by Edd Doerr (

Realising Secularism: Australia and New Zealand, edited by Max Wallace (Australia New Zealand Secular Association, 2010, 161 pp)

Australia, New Zealand and the US have much in common. All three are English-speaking more-or-less democratic former British colonies that largely displaced indigenous peoples. They have similar  histories and religious demography. The development of public education in  all three was similar. Like the US, Australia has seen a decline in religious affiliation to around 20%, while New Zealand has changed to about 51% nominal Christian and 32% non-religious, according to census figures. All three have seen over the past 40 years or so a rise of the Religious Right.

The three diverge, however, in one very important way. The US originated church-state separation with our Constitution and First Amendment. Australia's constitution has an establishment clause, Section 116, patterned after our First Amendment, which was not invoked until the state aid for church schools case was brought in the 1970s (I was involved in the case) and resulted in a disastrous 6-1 ruling in favor of tax  aid for church-run private schools. (The six justices who erroneously preferred a British to an American interpretation of S.116 were knighted by the British crown; the lone dissenter, the distinguished civil libertarian Lionel Murphy, was not.) New Zealand has a very secular history, but no solid guarantee of separation. The US, of course, suffered a setback with our Supreme Court's mistaken approval of Ohio's school voucher plan in Zelman v Simmons-Harris.

Let us note at this point that the word "secular" means "religiously neutral", not "irreligious" or "anti-religious", as the Religious Right would have it.

Just as we have seen in the US, strengthening drives to divert public funds to church-run private schools, so too have these campaigns been active in Australia and New Zealand. Lacking our constitutional protections the advocates of tax aid for nonpublic schools have been succeeding down under. As a result public schools and religious freedom in both countries have taken severe beatings. While we in the US have clobbered the taxes-for-church-schools movement in 27 of 28 statewide referenda, our cousins in Australia and New Zealand have been denied the opportunity to do so. They would surely follow our example if given the chance.

All this is given a thorough airing in Realising Secularisn. This important book is mostly a collection of papers presented at conferences in 2008 in Sydney and Wellington. Superb. Five stars!

No comments: