Religion continues its free ride without our blessing 

Chris Fotinopoulos / 20 March 2016

The majority of Australians say church and state should be separate, yet religion continues to be privileged in our society at taxpayer expense.

Source: Religion continues its free ride without our blessing – The Drum (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

The majority of Australians say church and state should be separate, yet religion continues to be privileged in our society at taxpayer expense, writes Chris Fotinopoulos.

Why aren’t we talking about the religious influence on party policies in this election campaign?

The relationship between church and state in Australia seems benign when set against news footage from Egypt, Syria and numerous Middle-East hot spots. And going by the ‘World’ news section of our tabloids, the violent clashes between religious and secularist groups in distant dusty lands are a far cry from Australian politics.

But in spite of our comparatively relaxed attitude towards organised religion in Australia, the question of religious influence on government policy needs to be asked. It is one area of the political debate that has not received much attention in this election campaign so far.

This is a gap. Australians clearly prefer a separation between church and state. According to a Herald/Nielsen poll conducted in the lead-up to the 2010 federal election, 84 per cent of people surveyed agreed with the statement ”religion and politics should be separate”. In Australia’s increasingly complex society, which includes many different cultures and different types of belief or lack of belief, this would seem to be the only option.

More recently, a worldwide poll conducted by Win-Gallup International, found that 48 per cent of Australians said they were not religious; 10 per cent declared themselves “convinced atheists”; and 5 per cent did not know or did not respond. Only 37 per cent were religious. What’s more, the poll placed Australia in the bottom 14 for religiosity and in the top 11 for atheism. Yet the increasing influence and funding of religion in Australia persists.

So why does the government continue to provide financial assistance in the order of $31 billion annually,according to the Secular Party of Australia, to religious institutions that are becoming less relevant to Australians? One explanation lies with the outsourcing of a lot of social welfare to various religious organisations by the Howard government.

After all, what better way of feeding the poor, housing the homeless, caring for the elderly, and counselling the mentally unwell than by enlisting the support of committed, altruistic, experienced workers who are close to the people who need this kind of help – all at a knock down price with the provider’s blessing to boot. It’s probably a win for the government and the church, but I’m not too sure if the social benefits extend to an expanding irreligious demographic.

By shifting a costly and complex social responsibility to religious providers, the government also exempts them from anti-discrimination laws. This is particularly evident with faith-based aged care providers that are free to discriminate against gays and lesbians on the sole basis that religious ethos overrides the principle of fair and equal treatment of all people.

We only need to look to certain state schools to see how government resources are used to support particular religious views and programs of religious instruction. And there is the $430 million that has gone to employ religious functionaries such as chaplains in state schools.

So what does a society that is becoming increasingly secular think about these legal and financial arrangements? Well, we won’t really know unless we have a debate that is as robust as the one surrounding the carbon tax, paid parental leave or any policy that involves large government subsidies to specific groups and organisations.

A couple of weeks ago Kevin Rudd announced a $2 billion package for the car industry, which saw reporters, economist and politicians arguing the merits of financial support for struggling industries. So why aren’t we having a similar conversation about government subsidies to religious organisations?

This is where scorecards can help. One such resource is the Secular Scorecard compiled by Rationalist Society of Australia. It assesses each party’s commitment to the principle of secularism by monitoring comments, statements, and parliamentary voting practices on issues such as voluntary euthanasia, equal marriage rights, religious instruction in state schools, abortion, and the law, and then scores each party accordingly.

It’s a tool that voters who support the separation of religion and state will find useful. What’s more, scorecards of this kind offer information that’s far more informative than spin, dumb headlines and maddening political party ads. Which can’t be bad for a pluralistic secular democracy such ours.

All the more reason.