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Separation of Church and State

South Australia was the first British colony to achieve the separation of church and state but separation of church and state is not the separation of religion from politics.  Religious-based views have a legitimate place in public debate.

The Hon. S.G. WADE: The year 2007 is the 150th anniversary of responsible government in South Australia. I think it is important that we take this opportunity to reflect on some of the principles that have guided the development of our state.

One area where our state has led the world has been in the separation of church and state. Our forebears were solid in their commitment to build a Christian society in the colony, but they differed markedly on how that could be done. Some saw the church as fundamental to growing a civilised society and thereby worthy of state support—what was called state aid for religion. For others, financial support for religious purposes compromised the respective roles of the state and the church. These people promoted what was called the voluntary principle.

Let me sketch the history of this development. The act which established the colony of South Australia in 1836 made provision for the appointment of chaplains, although this clause was repealed in 1838. During Governor Gawler’s term of office between 1838 and 1841 he failed to convince ministers from various denominations to support his proposals to heavily reduce the price of land if purchased for the support and maintenance of religion. Governor Robe wanted religion to be aided out of the local revenues of South Australia. In his address to the Legislative Council on 24 June 1846, he said:

South Australia is the most backward of all the colonies of the British Empire in providing from its public revenues for the means of worshipping. Let it no longer be a reproach upon the government of the province having control over the public finances.

Both camps were active. A number of petitions were presented to council, including one containing nearly 2 000 signatures which opposed state aid. Only half the council was elected at this stage and the Governor had the casting vote. Robe’s measure was carried and allocations were made to Christians and Jews.

In response to this decision, the League for the Preservation of Religious Freedom was revived. This group highlights the key point that the campaign against state aid for religion was not motivated by opposition to religion—religious people saw the dangers of state-run religion. The league’s manifesto was published in 1849 and was signed by 19 non-conformist churchmen. It read, in part:

The evils involved in the principle of state support to religion have been sufficiently obvious to most, if not all, of you in the Mother Country. It has impeded the spread of Christian principle by requiring mere outward observations as though they were essential and all-important. It has corrupted religion by making it formal, and weakened the state by compelling it to persecute, and wherever carried out to its legitimate consequences it has proved an effectual bar to the advance of the community in any of the paths of social or material progress. Judged by its fruit it is condemned by the voices of experience from the first moment of its adoption to the present time.

In January 1851 a new Constitution for the province arrived in South Australia and two-thirds of the council by this time was nominated by the colonists. For the first time the colony had an election, and state aid to religion was a central issue in the 1851 election. Supporters of the voluntary principle were well supported, and in late 1851 the Legislative Council defeated Governor Robe’s state support to religion act by a majority of three. The full debate was published in the Adelaide Times newspaper of 30 August 1851; and I quote from the front page as follows:

South Australia has set a noble example to the other colonies of this southern empire and it is one, we trust, they will not be slow to follow.

South Australia was the first British colony to achieve the separation of church and state—an issue that is still debated in the mother country 150 years later. Having said that, both the church and the state evolve and South Australia needs to strive to maintain an appropriate relationship between the church and the state.

From my perspective one of the greatest threats to an appropriate balance is from those who deny the legitimacy of religious-based views in public debate. The principle of separation of church and state is not the separation of religion from politics. Other matters that highlight the contemporary relevance of this issue include the commonwealth’s proposal to provide chaplains in schools, church opposition to the Iraq war, government contracting for welfare and employment services, and the Equal Opportunity Act before the other place. In conclusion, I would stress that mutual respect and cooperation, yet with separation, are important for the health of both the church and the state.