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Government and religion in New Zealand

By Max Wallace - posted Thursday, 14 October 2010

Passing controversies in New Zealand have highlighted religionists’ misunderstanding of the idea that religion in a secular society is a “private matter”, and New Zealand’s future republicanism.

In July 2010 Race Relations Commissioner, Joris De Bres, said New Zealand was a secular state and that religion was only for the “private sphere”. The statement was contained in a draft update of the Commission’s 2004 review report Human Rights in New Zealand Today.

What Joris De Bres was getting at, but which he did not articulate, is that in a notionally secular state, government cannot be seen to be identifying with religion. To do so, introduces theocracy into democracy. It follows, as Joris De Bres says, that “belief is a personal matter”.


Totally misunderstanding this, Catholic Bishop Peter Cullinane said the Commission’s reference to New Zealand as a “secular state” should be dropped as the majority of New Zealanders characterise themselves as religious. This statement is highly selective on two counts: religious participation is very low and nearly a third of New Zealanders state they have “no religion” in the census. At next year’s census, it is very likely Christians will drop below 50 per cent of the population.

In a letter to the New Zealand Herald on July 15, 2010, Joris De Bres elaborated on what he meant. He denied that the Human Rights Commission had “bowed to Catholic Church objections that New Zealand was a secular state and that religion was only for the private sphere”. He concluded, the review report “will make it clear there is a strong separation of church and state, and people have the freedom to believe, individually or with others, without interference from the state”.

But, to complicate matters, that minimalist definition of separation, echoed by Joris De Bres, is also partly misleading. New Zealand, like Australia, is a constitutional monarchy, not a republic.

The occasionally heard assertion that because New Zealand does not have an “established church”, an official, national religion, that it follows there is separation of church and state, is simply wrong.

In Australia, this assertion originates from an 1897 comment by Australia’s first prime minister, Edmund Barton (see my article “The whale in the bay of Australian politics”, On Line Opinion, October 4, 2010), and in New Zealand from a 1911 Supreme Court case, Carrigan v Redwood. In this case, concerning the ultimate destination of an inheritance, the Court found that all churches were equal before the law. It said nothing about separation of church and state.

I suggest this is the situation:

  • the Queen, who is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, is New Zealand’s head of state;
  • there is no clause separating church and state in the Constitution Act 1986. Indeed, how could there be, while New Zealand retains the Supreme Governor of a major religious tradition as head of state and remains a constitutional monarchy, not a republic?
    Reflecting this state of affairs, the national anthem is God Defend New Zealand and until recently New Zealand had a second national anthem, God Save the Queen;
  • the flag contains Christian crosses and Christian prayers open every session of parliament; and
  • knighthoods, recently reinstated by the national government, according to the Queen’s website, have their recent origins in Christian ritual, and are awarded by her to citizens who don’t rock the monarchist boat.

Given all of this, it is therefore mistaken to argue that there is a separation of church and state in New Zealand. Like Australia, New Zealand is constitutionally a soft theocracy with strong democratic traditions. This religious-secular duality is reflected in our currencies that have democratic images on one side and the Anglican Queen’s image on the other. We carry our nations’ constitutional position with us in our pockets and exchange it regularly - but we never think about the meaning of its symbolism as we exchange it.

Paradoxically then, and for reasons the Catholic bishops probably don’t understand, they were right to argue that New Zealand is not a secular state, at least in the most important legal, constitutional sense.

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About the Author

Max Wallace is vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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