Monday, July 15, 2013

Separating church and state in New Zealand

On Saturday I went down to Wellington to attend Victoria University Centre for Public law's mini-conference on Constitutional Conversations on the Separation of Church and State in NZ. A summary:

Gay Morgan (University of Waikato) spoke on the US experience. After some background about how early US colonists fleeing religious persecution became persecutors in turn by establishing theocracies, she got to the meat of the US First Amendment's Establishment Clause, and the difficulties it has had in both defining "religion" and separating it from culture and traditional practice (which may have been religious originally, but have become secularised). She felt that there was a real problem with the broad-brush, constitutional language approach, which has begun to trivialise the real concerns people have in this area. What people object to isn't secularised yoga in school PE classes (irrevocably promoting Hinduism, according to some fundamentalist christian lawsuit), but being forced to go to church, and being forced to support religious groups with their tax dollars. Rather than the top-down approach, she advocated being specific e.g. legislating so that education funding could only be spent on education according to the curriculum, rather than on religious indoctrination.

Dr Caroline Sawyer (VUW) talked about the "UK" (actually English) experience. This was somewhat meandering, starting with the establishment of the Church of England and legal persecution of Catholics and other religious minorities, and went on to talk about marriage law as a specific example of the state recognition of religion in the UK. She tried to use the New Zealand Marriage Act as an example of this, but IMHO missed the key point that here it is a matter of convenience, rather than a recognition of any inherant "authority" to marry people. One of the key points was that establishment was tied to the monarchy, but that because that probably isn't going anywhere any time soon, neither is the church.

Dr Meg Wallace was supposed to talk about the Australian experience. Instead she gave a dull rant about the need for secularism in New Zealand, and invoked article 6 of the (dumped) draft Fijian Constitution [PDF] as a model to be adopted here.

Dave Armstrong talked about the effects of New Zealand culture. Our desire to view religion as a private matter and our dislike of abstract causes meant that we generally got along, but also has led to complacency which is being exploited by a fanatical religious minority. On this front, he expressed thanks to overseas fundamentalists for waking us up to the dangers a little, but thought we still wouldn't care until things had gone to far. The most likely crisis point would be Charter Schools, where the rules are so lax that Al Qaeda could set one up. And when that happens - or more likely some Christian fundamentalist group uses government money to deny evolution and push bigotry at small children - there is likely to be a backlash. He also had concerns about the Treaty of Waitangi as a barrier to seperation, due to the (well justified) consultation requirements.

Ngaire McCarthy rebutted Armstrong's last point, talking about how her language had been hijacked and perverted by Christians and mapped onto their concepts. She explained how wairua was about connection, not spirits, and karakia were not prayers.

Dr Bryce Edwards (Otago University) talked about the way forward, and suggested a sweeping secularisation bill to remove religious references from legislation. He had a long list of these, starting with the obvious - Marriage Act, blasphemous libel, Education Act, Charities Act - to the not so obvious - Broadcasting Act, Sale of Liquor Act, the RMA, the national anthem. And then the bastard made me talk briefly about the practicalities of that, in which I said that no MP would buy that big fight for no political payoff, and that it was probably better to salami the issue, with one or more specific bills on high-profile issues. The best candidates were the Charities Act (where the definition of charitable work is over 400 years old and written in an era when they thought religion mattered) and the Education Act (where secular education is only mandated for primary schools and often abused). Many of the other issues will pass in due course, likely the next time the government revised the law.

One thing which wasn't obvious from the advertising, but which became obvious at the event, was that that was basically the NZ association of rationalists and humanists talking to itself. No-one else was interested in the "conversation"; its just not seen as a priority by New Zealanders. Until, of course, something goes horribly wrong...