Religion as Politics not Law: the Religion Clauses in the Australian Constitution

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Evans, C
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2008
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Abstract

The Australian Constitution provides for the protection of religious freedom and prohibits establishment in very similar terms to the United States Constitution. Yet while Australian judges have often stated the importance of religious freedom in a democratic state and have defined religion in a broad, culturally sensitive way, they have taken a narrow approach to the scope of religious freedom and to the meaning of establishment. The end result is that the courts have played very little role in determining the boundaries of acceptable government or legislative behaviour in the regulation of religion. Instead, the key decisions have been left to the political branches of government, which have been given a broad scope of power to engage in all but the most direct and egregious breaches of religious freedom. This article begins with an overview of the history of the drafting of the religion clauses of the Australian Constitution and then gives a detailed analysis of the way in which those clauses have been interpreted by the High Court. It concludes that the approach of the High Court in interpreting the religion clauses narrowly, as a constraint on government power rather than a right, has limited the capacity of the Court to participate meaningfully in the key legal questions around religious freedom. While this approach might have been workable in the past, the growing complexity of regulating religion means that the courts need to be able to develop more sophisticated legal approaches to questions of religious freedom.

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Religion, State and Society

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36

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3

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Political science

Religious studies

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Evans, C, Religion as politics not law: The religion clauses in Australian constitution, Religion, State and Society, 2008, 36 (3), pp. 283-302

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