Last week’s High Court ruling that government funding of chaplaincy in Australia is a violation of the constitution was met with a feisty guarantee that it would continue, albeit through specific grants rather than consolidated revenue. Opposition to it, however, seems to have been based on the commonly misunderstood concepts of the separation of church and state and also the freedom of religion.
Many people seem to feel that the ideal of separating church and state means that these have no relationship to each other. This is naive, at best. Belief informs policy and politicians certainly govern according to convictions. Convictions shape decisions in all walks of life and this is true whether they are biblically informed or not. This is, however, quite different to forcing a religious preference or lifestyle on someone. Such conduct is not acceptable (and history shows it to be dangerous) but it is not at issue here. Chaplains are governed by restrictions that prevent proselytising in government schools, anyway.
What people often sadly look for in this desire for separation of church and state, too, is freedom from religion, rather than freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is not simply the freedom to allow people to practise their belief in private, but the freedom to practise their belief publicly, even if in positions of influence. What matters is the manner and force of impact. If one person can rabidly obsess with football and another with finance, then why not me with faith, for example. This means being free to express my views and even interact with others about them. Of course I would stop short of forcing them upon people, but I am surely allowed to debate and discuss them in a free and civilised society. Normal social protocols sort out the extent to which others will welcome and accept those of faith into their world, anyway.
A person was once threatened with dismissal for innocently sharing his beliefs with work colleagues under the ‘Racial and Religious Tolerance Act’, unaware that he was actually able to protect his right to do so under the same legislation! Everyone is surely free to express a view and live by the convictions that it shapes if seeking the betterment of others, no matter how misguided. Those who oppose such a fundamental right betray their own prejudicial stance against certain beliefs in favour of certain other ones. Even atheism is not non-belief, but is a chosen values system that rejects others on offer, usually without objectively assessing the lines of argument upon which it is founded, because it is often adopted as a religion of convenience.