By Guest Columnist Jane Caro

“To say that secular means irreligious implies that all the arts and sciences are irreligious, and is very like saying that all professions except that of the law are illegal.” John Stuart Mill

In the past few decades, particularly in Western democracies, there has been a concerted effort by those with Christian religious faith to demonise the idea of a secular state. This rejection of a fundamental cornerstone of liberal democracy has been particularly profound in the US, which is in danger of becoming a theocracy in all but name, especially in the so-called Bible Belt of Republican-led states in the South.

Such vitally important secular ideals as individual freedom have been co-opted and distorted to sanctify the right to bear arms, including weapons that can mow down hundreds in minutes. It has also been co-opted to resist wearing of masks during COVID-19 and to object to vaccination passports. Bizarrely it has also been used to justify destroying the right of women to control their own bodies by elevating the fetus to the status of an adult woman. A recent episode of ABC Foreign Correspondent chillingly documented the reality that there is now only one abortion provider in Missouri and it is under constant siege. A few decades ago, there were 30. Worse, Texas has just enacted the most draconian anti-abortion bill so far. It has not only banned all terminations after 6 weeks gestation – when most women have no idea they are pregnant – but weaponised Texans by offering them a bounty of $10,000 if they dob in anyone who helps anyone access an abortion. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor described Texas as having created ‘bounty hunters’ in her scathing dissenting opinion after the Supreme Court upheld the Texan law. According to many legal experts, this spells the end of Roe v Wade, the precedent that enshrined a woman’s right to abortion in the US.

Some have described the Texan law-makers who have passed this bill as the Texan Taliban, neatly summing up how close parts of the US are to becoming the very thing they claim to most despise – a theocracy. Like so many religious zealots, it seems they only despise theocracies in the name of religions not their own.

Theocracies, regardless of the faith they represent, are deadly dangerous, particularly to
women, the LGBTQI community and many more, including those of other religious and ethnic backgrounds. As I write this we have all been glued to our screens watching the chaos at Kabul airport as people desperately try to escape the return of a theocratic government after 20 years. The Taliban are currently claiming that they have changed and that they will not repress women (I have yet to hear about any change of heart towards LGBTQI Afghans or Hazarras – the most persecuted Afghan minority community) the way they did two
decades ago. They are saying they will allow women to work, go to school, leave the house
and participate in society within the constraints of Sharia (religious Muslim) law. Such pronouncements, meant to sound conciliatory, should make any good secularist’s blood run cold. But it’s not just Islamic theocracies that can be lethal.

Ireland was an example of a Christian – specifically Catholic – theocracy until very recently. The stories of the horrors perpetrated on women and children in church run institutions fill the headlines to this day, from 800 bodies of babies and children unearthed at a former Catholic home for unmarried mothers and their children in Tuam, to the scandals around the Magdalena Laundries where so-called ‘fallen’ women could be incarcerated for life.

The collapse of Irish theocracy began in 2015 when same sex marriage was legalised, but the final death blow came with the repeal of another draconian anti-abortion law. Amendment 8 was enacted in 1983 and effectively banned all abortion by creating a new class of citizen and reducing fully grown women to the moral, legal and ethical equivalent of a handful of cells from the moment she became pregnant. Many women suffered as a result of this blanket prohibition but it was the agonising and unnecessary death of Savita Halappannavar in 2012 who was refused treatment for a septic miscarriage, that brought the issue to a head. After a bitterly fought referendum Amendment 8 was repealed in 2018. Other prominent theocracies include Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi women only recently won the right to drive a car and the right to vote in municipal elections. In Iran women are frequently harassed by religious police for not being properly covered and in both countries outspoken women have been arrested and jailed for peaceful protests, including against compulsory wearing of the hijab. LGBTQI rights are not recognised in either country and horrific punishments can be enacted by law including public whippings, chemical castration, life in prison and the death penalty. Theocracies threaten the lives, health and rights of women, LGBTQI and many others. The historical and present day evidence of the oppressive nature of theocracies, whatever their flavour, seems almost too lurid to be believed, and yet it is true. As Margaret Atwood famously said about her dystopian novel about a theocracy called Gilead ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (now a major TV series for HULU) nothing she wrote has not happened to some women somewhere. Every attempt to water down the principle of secular government and its secular institutions in Australia should be resisted. This does not mean that legislators, the judiciary, educators or anyone else cannot have their own personal faith. As Mill said, secular does not mean against religion, it means separate from religion. What it means is no laws should be enacted and no public funding should be allocated according to religious faith. Existing incursions into secularity such as chaplains in schools, public funding of private schools – 95% of which are religious, public funding of religiously run hospitals (many refuse to offer the full suite of health options, particularly to women), the statutory exemption to the anti-
discrimination act which allows religious employers to hire and fire on the basis of religious faith and morality, and the proposed and erroneously name “Religious Freedoms Bill” must be both opposed and hopefully repealed. It is neither logical nor acceptable to argue – as many of the proponents of faith-based legislation do – that it is discrimination to prevent them from discriminating against others.

To borrow from Mill, it is very like what the Confederates argued during the American Civil
War - that it impinged on their states rights to prevent them from owning slaves. Secularity - the separation of church and state – protects Australia from such logical inanities. It also protects everyone’s rights to think and believe and do as they wish as long as it does not impinge on any one else. It particularly protects women’s rights, those of the LGBTQI community and those who believe differently. It is no accident that secular liberal
democracies, for all their faults, remain the society’s most likely to protect those of all faiths
and of none.