Judicial (in)activism in Australia's secular Commonwealth

Mortensen, Reid (2005) Judicial (in)activism in Australia's secular Commonwealth. Interface: A Forum for Theology in the World, 8 (1). pp. 52-69. ISSN 1329-6264


This article addresses two aspects of Australia's soft secular government. The first aspect explains how, and asks why, judges have been inactive in helping to draw the contours of secular government in Australia. The principal reason is that much of the social regulation that provokes the interest of faith-based groups is the constitutional concern of the States, and no State Constitution claims to coordinate relations between church and state. Moreover, the electorate has twice refused to pass referenda, in 1944 and 1988, for extending a constitutional demand of secular governance to the States. However, this is not so for the Commonwealth. It falls under the restrictions of section 116 of the federal Constitution, which states:

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

As will be explained, while methods of legal interpretation suggest that section 116's establishment clause could place mild demands of non-discrimination on the federal Parliament, judicial inactivity in policing such demands on the Commonwealth, paradoxically, has arguably been secured by judicial activism in the High Court.

A second aspect of secular government addressed is the High Court's disposal of 'the separation of church and state' as a constitutional principle in Australia. The contrast, of course, is to the United States, where for sixty years 'separation' has been given uneven recognition as a rule of constitutional law, and has undoubtedly driven the development of hard forms of secular governance in that country. The centrepiece of American secular government is the 1971 decision in Lemon v Kurtzman, where the US Supreme Court held that valid legislation had to pass three tests, ie:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion .. . finally, the statute must not foster 'an excessive government entanglement with religion.

The third 'entanglement' prong of Lemon is the modern, less ambitious, form of the 'wall of separation', prohibiting too close an engagement between church and state. As this paper will demonstrate, 'entanglement's' destiny shows how unlikely it is that 'separation' can survive as a meaningful constitutional principle in the USA. And, it will also be argued that 'separation' has even poorer prospects for import to Australia.

Statistics for USQ ePrint 5021
Statistics for this ePrint Item
Item Type: Article (Commonwealth Reporting Category C)
Refereed: Yes
Item Status: Live Archive
Additional Information: Issue title: Theology and Law: Partners or Protagonists?
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Faculty of Business - Department of Law (Up to 31 Mar 2007)
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Faculty of Business - Department of Law (Up to 31 Mar 2007)
Date Deposited: 25 May 2009 01:48
Last Modified: 02 Jul 2013 23:15
Uncontrolled Keywords: Australia; secular government; judicial
Fields of Research (2008): 18 Law and Legal Studies > 1801 Law > 180121 Legal Practice, Lawyering and the Legal Profession
Fields of Research (2020): 48 LAW AND LEGAL STUDIES > 4805 Legal systems > 480505 Legal practice, lawyering and the legal profession
URI: http://eprints.usq.edu.au/id/eprint/5021

Actions (login required)

View Item Archive Repository Staff Only