Trouble Down Under, Part 2: Lessons for the United States

Edd Doerr

Australia and the United States have much in common. Both are English-speaking, continent-wide former British colonies. Both pretty much displaced their indigenous populations. Both are reasonably prosperous today. America’s founders, with fresh or not-so-fresh memories of Europe’s centuries of religious conflict, had the wisdom and foresight to put the concept of separation of church and state into its Bill of Rights toward the end of the eighteenth century. That all-important principle for protecting religious liberty was woven into the vast majority of state constitutions, while the Fourteenth Amendment, added to the Constitution after our Civil War, was intended to make the Bill of Rights applicable to state and local governments, something that took many decades to be almost fully implemented.

Australia’s constitution writers, a century after ours, incorporated the separation principle in Section 116 of their 1901 constitution. But then things began to diverge sharply. Australia’s states lack the separation principle; Australia has nothing like our Fourteenth Amendment, and its legal system, following the British model, works significantly to the disadvantage of citizens who would defend their religious freedom, the public-education system, and the separation principle in the courts. So, while the United States has a rich heritage of federal and state court rulings dealing with religious freedom and church-state issues, Australia does not. My June/July 2013 Free Inquiry column dealt with Australia’s post–World War II opening of the floodgates to federal and state aid to religious and other private schools, and the disastrous 1981 High Court ruling against plaintiffs seeking to use the American-inspired Section 116 to defend church-state separation.

Before proceeding further, let’s note that Australia’s religious demography, while resembling that of the United States superficially, has a rather different flavor. Australia is a far more secular country. Regular church attendance is only about 9 percent, versus more than 30 percent in the United States. Interest in religion is far lower in Australia than here, yet church leaders—Anglican, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist and more recently, U.S.–style independent fundamentalist—have always been more influential Down Under. This is spelled out by Australian scholar Marion Maddox in her detailed 2005 book, God and Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics (Allen & Unwin). The closest thing to a church-state separation organization there is the Australian Council for the Defence of Government Schools, which has existed for decades. It was the force behind the court challenge to tax aid to private schools, and has issued to date more than five hundred insightful press releases (accessible online).

While researching this column, I re-scanned Australian political scientist Tom Truman’s 1960 book, Catholic Action and Politics (Merlin Press) and found this prophetic sentence in the book’s conclusion: “The most eagerly sought political objective of the Catholic Church in Australia is state subsidies for the Catholic education system.” This was before the start of tax aid for church schools in that country that paralleled developments in the United States, such as the drive to amend the New York State constitution in 1967 to allow tax aid to church schools, which failed by 72 percent to 28 percent in the state ratification referendum and which was the subject of my 1968 book, The Conspiracy That Failed (Americans United).

Truman’s book also contains this interesting bit of information: Australian government figures on school enrollment in 1955—before the advent of tax aid to church schools—showed that 76 percent of elementary and secondary students attended public schools, 19 percent attended Catholic schools, and 5 percent attended an assortment of other private schools. Yet the 2008–2009 enrollment figures, cited in my June/July column, show Catholic school enrollment at only 20 percent of the total. This question naturally arises: With the tsunami of tax aid flowing to church schools, why has the percentage of enrollment in Australia’s Catholic schools shown no significant change in half a century? One possible reason may be that large numbers of children from families who cannot afford the tuition and even modest fees charged by the generously tax-supported Catholic private schools attend the underfunded public schools.

In summary, as I noted in my last column, total spending for K–12 schools for 2008–2009 was AUD$39 billion, of which $30 billion (79 percent) was for public schools and $8 billion for Catholic and other private schools, which receive nearly half of their income from fees, charges, and donations. In 2010, public schools spent an average of AUD$11,523 per student, versus Catholic and other denominational private schools that spent an average of $11,539 per student and elite private schools that spent $14,456 per student.

It’s not as if Australian churches need government support. According to a 2005 article by Adele Ferguson in Business Review Weekly, the revenues (not wealth) of the five big churches in Australia in 2004 totaled AUD$21.7 billion (Catholic, $15 billion; Uniting Church, $3 billion; Anglican, $2.4 billion; Salvation Army and Seventh-day Adventist combined, $1 billion).

The preceding discussion has dealt only with the diversion of public funds to sectarian private schools. But Australia’s church-state problems do not end there. Now let’s look at the situation regarding religion in the public schools, which serve about 68 percent of Australia’s children. In the country’s estimated 6,705 public schools, there are (2010 government figures) 2,700 tax-paid chaplains (98 percent of them “tethered to the Christian faith,” as Prime Minister Gillard puts it, plus thirty Muslim, fourteen Jewish, one Buddhist, and nine “secular” chaplains). According to Macquarie University scholar Catherine Byrne, “No qualifications are required and selection is done by third parties.” The Commonwealth ombudsman reported in 2011 (Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations) that “the programme suffered from lack of oversight, poor management, and a lack of clarification on the limitations to proselytizing.”

In some fast-expanding areas, politicians are allowing churches to start tax-funded private schools before public schools are started, a move that may actually deny children access to religiously neutral public schools.

This all-too-brief look at the church-state situation in our cousin country down under should make Americans appreciate all the more that our founders had the wisdom and foresight to incorporate the separation principle in our national and state constitutions; that our courts have by and large upheld that principle; and that voters, when given the chance to do so, have followed suit.

However, relying on inertia to carry us into the future is as irresponsible as ignoring climate change, environmental degradation, overpopulation, and other threats to civilization. The same forces that have caused so much damage to our cousin country are unceasingly at work in today’s America. The clericalists, school privatizers, pseudo-reformers, fundamentalist activists, and corporate special interests—aided and abetted by apathy, ignorance, and political enablers—are not going away. America pioneered church-state separation as the indispensable protector of religious and other freedoms. We, all of us, of whatever personal philosophy or life stance or religion, cannot relax.

JFK, Fifty Years On

This fall will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In the face of massive assaults on religious freedom and church-state separation by clericalists, fundamentalist extremists, ultraconservatives, pontificating pundits, and political hacks, we would do well to remember what Kennedy said when he addressed the Ministerial Association of Greater Houston on September 12, 1960:

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote— where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference—and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. . . .

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish—where no public official requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source—where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials—and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

In addressing the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 21, 1960, Kennedy had this to say: “I believe the American people are more concerned with a man’s views and abilities than with the church to which he belongs. I believe the Founding Fathers meant it when they provided in Article VI of the Constitution that there should be no religious test for public office. . . . I would not look with favor upon a President working to subvert the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

In Look magazine on March 3, 1959, Kennedy said: “I am flatly opposed to appointment of an ambassador to the Vatican.”

There have been those who have questioned Kennedy’s sincerity, but my friend and colleague the late Paul Blanshard, humanist and church-state separation expert, met with Kennedy shortly after his election and came away convinced that Kennedy meant exactly what he said. Since Kennedy, we have seen Reagan inaugurate diplomatic relations with the Vatican, Republican presidents and other politicians push to divert public funds to church schools and try to restrict freedom of conscience on reproductive matters, and a surge of conservative religious leaders trying to tear down our once formidable wall of separation between church and state.

Johnnie, we miss you.


Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.

Australia and the United States have much in common. Both are English-speaking, continent-wide former British colonies. Both pretty much displaced their indigenous populations. Both are reasonably prosperous today. America’s founders, with fresh or not-so-fresh memories of Europe’s centuries of religious conflict, had the wisdom and foresight to put the concept of separation of church and …

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