• Kristin Perissinotto

What the F is: separation of church and state

If you have access to the world wide web or another kind of medium to consume the news (eg. TV, newspapers, or that colleague who always rattles off the latest headlines of a morning), you'll know that a lot of people are pretty pissed about ScoMo's strong and very public ties to the Pentecostal Hillsong church, well known (to me) for its ties to Justin Bieber.

#ScoMoses has been trending on Twitter today, and lots of people have been vocally criticising the Prime Minister for being so openly religious. But what's the problem? Australians have the right to practice any religion they want, so why is ScoMo getting so much flack for it? The answer is a little thing called the separation of church and state.

A quick definition

Simply put, separation of church and state means that the government and laws of Australia are not tied to any specific religion nor religious belief - they are separate. The separation of church and state is the idea that a government must maintain an attitude of neutrality toward religion. This means that Australian governments on federal, state, and local levels cannot impose any religion, prohibit practicing any religion, or use religion or religious beliefs as a prerequisite for elected officials entering office.

It's in the Constitution

The Australian Constitution states much of the above, with Chapter 5 § 116 reading:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

Essentially, separation of church and state is written into the law in Australia.

So has ScoMo broken the law?

No. The rule works in his favour even though it's making a lot of people unhappy. The separation between church and state means that anyone in Australia is free to believe and practice the religion of their choosing, so there's nothing legally wrong with the PM being involved with a church, no matter how publicly. And he hasn't imposed his religion on us either, so legally speaking, he's in the clear.

Then Scotty has done nothing wrong?

Technically, and by the letter of the law, no. But just because he's acting lawfully doesn't mean it's necessarily right, and it definitely won't save him from potentially losing an election. By being so public with his religion, he's at risk of:

Alienating people of other religions

Australia is a multicultural country, and many migrants and refugees flee countries because they aren't free to practice their religion. Those countries often do not have a separation of church and state mandated, for example, in Iran, the ruling government is Muslim, and it is punishable by law to practice any other religion. It is common to hear people of non-Muslim religions from countries like Iran coming to Australia to freely practice their faith. Although this is not the sole reason for seeking asylum, and the immigration laws in Australia often prevent this from becoming a reality.

Alienating people of no religion

Atheists and agnostic people may not be too happy to see a Prime Minister with staunch religious beliefs, and the way he seems to let those beliefs into his leadership. ScoMo recently said, at a Christian conference, that he believes God placed him in the role of PM. Non-religious people have vocally pushed back against this, saying that it was the Australian public that put him into the job, by way of a democratic vote (which is factually accurate), not God.

Bringing religion to the forefront might be a mistake

At the current moment, the Christian religion doesn't have great connotations. Catholicism has made the news for some pretty awful reasons in the past few years in Australia, particularly with the conviction of George Pell. Religion as a whole is going down in popularity, with younger generations less inclined to join or practice a religion. Simply put, Christianity has a bit of a reputation problem. By affiliating himself so publicly, ScoMo is at risk of connecting himself to scandals and that bad reputation in the public's mind.

Hillsong has a reputation

For the uninitiated, Hillsong is a very, very well-known, Australian-founded church. It's one of those ~cool~, hip, not-like-other-churches type church. The leaders wear leather and ride motorbikes and the services are more like rock concerts than stuffy, buttoned-up sermons. Carl Lentz, a famous NYC-based Hillsong leader and Justin Bieber's (former?) mentor and father figure is at least partially responsible for Hillsong's fall from grace, after it was found that he was cheating on his wife. The scandal broke in November of 2020. If you want to read about it, check out this article in Vanity Fair.

In conclusion

While he's hasn't broken any laws, Scott Morrison definitely hasn't done himself any favours with this strong connection to the Hillsong church. He has the right to practice his religion, he has the right to tweet about his prayers, and he has the right to speak at Christian conventions. But we as voters also have the right to critique him for it.

NB. It has also been reported that up to half of the members of the cabinet are Hillsong affiliates. This fact is contested and, thus far, unconfirmed. We were unable to confirm it either way, so please do your own research before forming an opinion.