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Having set the general framework of a Catholic citizen’s duties in the previous article, it’s time to look at the issue of separation of church and state in more detail, starting with an examination of the two most common objections to religion’s presence in the public square.
Assisting in this examination is Margaret Somerville, the Samuel Gale Professor of Law, Professor in the Faculty of Medicine, and the Founding Director of the Faculty of Law’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Montreal. She addresses secularist truth claims in a piece published in the Montreal Gazette (May 18, 2010).
Objection 1: “Religion and religious voices and views have no valid role to play in the public square.”
Societies have long used religion to shape and define their cultures. The secularist argument against religion’s influence in the public square insists that religion is too divisive and biased to fulfill this function in a pluralist society. It must be admitted that there is some truth to this secularist argument.
Too often unacknowledged by secularist proponents is the fact that religion’s competing isms are not neutral themselves. Secularism, environmentalism, atheism, scientism, and moralism, for example, can be just as divisive and biased as religion within the context of a pluralist society. The charge that religion is divisive and biased is one that can be accurately leveled against any belief system. If divisiveness and bias are grounds to exclude religion from the public square, then they are also grounds to exclude other isms.
The fundamental flaw in the secularist argument against religion based on religion’s divisiveness and biases is that no ism exists in a vacuum. Isms exist as part of people’s worldviews. Democracy is built on self-evident truths that all people are equal and possess “unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. Suppression or exclusion of any particular person’s worldview violates that person’s rights and is inimical to democracy.
Objection 2: “…secular democratic societies require a separation of Church and State.”
The veracity of this second claim must be admitted. Unfortunately, in too much public discourse, separation of church and state is little more than a cudgel used to silence people of faith. There are two defining characteristics of the separation of church and state:
1. The state’s laws, public policies, and social policies do not stand “directly on religious beliefs”. This distinguishes the secular democratic society from theocratic societies such as Iran.
2. The separation of church and state exists for two purposes. First, it protects the state “from being controlled or wrongfully interfered with” by religion. It also exists to protect religions and people of faith from wrongful inteference by the state.
Excluding religious opinions from the public square is contrary to the purposes of the separation of church and state. Furthermore, excluding religious opinions from the public square violates the rights of people of faith. Justice Kenneth Mackenzie, member of British Columbia’s Court of Appeals, wrote in Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36 that “moral positions (whether secularly or religiously based) taken as positions of conscience are entitled to full participation in the dialogue in the public square where moral questions are answered as a matter of law and social policy.”
The Church echoes Justice Mackenzie’s legal opinion. (Or, more accurately, Justice Mackenzie echoes the Church’s long-standing position on religious liberty and rights of conscience.) Catholic citizens may rest easy knowing that there is no sound philosophical reason for them to ignore their religious beliefs when exercising their civic duties.
When people of faith bring their religiously informed points of view into the public square, they operate within the best democratic traditions. When Catholics do so, they also operate securely within the parameters of Church teaching.