My wife, an American,Â was gobsmacked when I read out the story from today’s paper that the Australian government is spending $90 million to put chaplains in schools. To most Americans, the idea that the government would use public funds to promote religion is unthinkable. The first amendment to the US constitution reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
As Wikipedia points out, this has been construed broadly. As Black J said in Everson v Board of Education:
The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the federal government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.”
Yet the odd thing is that the Australian constitution also has a religion clause. Indeed, ours was modelled on the US clause. It reads:
116. 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.
Yet while the religion clause in the US constitution gets interpreted broadly, the religion clause in the Australian constitution has always been interpreted narrowly. The Australian federal government probably couldn’t get away from legislating an official national religion, butÂ government funding of religious schools, prayer in schools (my sixth grade teacher at Pennant Hills Primary SchoolÂ had us say the Lord’s Prayer daily), and government fundingÂ for chaplains, haveÂ always passed muster with the High Court of Australia.