SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE, DIDN'T THE STATE GET THE MEMO?
The Montreal Review, June, 2010
So here we have a controversy in the making, Canadian style. The Canadian Constitution guarantees religious freedoms and our political traditions prevent us from turning into some kind of theocracy where bishops make laws preventing us from driving cars on Sundays for supposedly Biblical reasons. But brewing on the sidelines, we have a few Muslim women who wish to practice their religion by wearing a covering over their heads despite the State wishing to have them easily identifiable and we have the same-sex marriage issues where some people of a different faith refuse to perform those marriage rites of a civil union even though the State has given its blessings for such a union.
As for the head coverings, some have argued that this is more of a cultural preference than a bona fide religious decision. True or not, this seems to be a matter to be discussed between Muslims much like water baptism for infants is a matter discussed between Christians. At this moment of time, this article will not look into the head coverings nor how the State responds to that specific issue, other than to say that perhaps the State should consult with the Muslim community before making unilateral decisions on how one is to practice his or her religion.
The gay marriage option is something that the State has offered its citizenry in the form of a civil union. It allows those who wish to pursue this lifestyle to be able to fulfill their full potential in society as any other couple unified through marriage. The State can make laws to give protection and similar status to a minority as enjoyed by a majority; this is something that they can do. Presuming that somehow the State is the author of what marriage is, or is not goes beyond the State's bailiwick.
Former Prime Minister Chretien once said in response to the Roman Catholic Church's disapproval of allowing same-sex marriage that he believed in the separation of Church and State. This is an interesting statement because the first question that pops into mind is "Why does the State believe they can legislate marriage?" Well in this particular situation, they modified the acceptable legal protections that a married couple receives in the eyes of the state to include same-sex couples and that it becomes a contract between two people.
Well this is all great until someone who has religious convictions refuses to perform the ceremony for a same-sex union because he is following a higher law than that of the State. Instead of finding like-minded individuals to perform the ceremony, this soon-to-be-couple has decided that the offending pastor be reprimanded for refusing to perform the ritual and they cite that Separation of Church and State be respected.
In the Greek play Antigone, we have Creon ordering a state funeral for a hero and ordering that the one who betrayed the State be left out in the streets without being buried. Antigone who is the sister of the one who betrayed the State refuses to obey the law and buries her brother and she is arrested and the play explores her reasons. Antigone claims that the State is limited as to what it can command and that there are higher laws that the state can never rewrite. If Creon had ruled to bury the criminal with the least possible luxuries, the law would not have been overstepping its bounds, but forcing someone to not bury the dead did overstep the State's authority.
The State can not expect to claim a separation of Church and State and then compel religious compliance to State invented ethics. Is it ethical to have same-sex marriages? Yes. Is it religious? This is not for the State to determine nor to legislate. So if a pastor refuses to have the State force him to deny a religious belief, then he must not be the next Antigone who reminds the State to know its place.
Besides, if the State refuses to respect its own mantra of "Separation of Church and State" and ignore the protection of religious beliefs in the Canadian Constitution we just need to see that during the Renaissance, political philosophers have suggested that the State invent its own civic religion to supersede other religions. Since then, the State has evolved with Nationalism and measuring everything from a humanistic perspective promoting a civic religion of one's nation. In other words, the State has become its own religion, its own Church competing with other religions. This then illuminates the hypocrisy of claiming religious tolerance when imposing another religion onto others.
You can't claim to accept all viewpoints and then refuse to allow someone to speak when he or she disagrees with you, and if we force people to do ceremonies against their religious beliefs or penalize them for refusing, then we are replacing one past injustice with another new one. Separation of Church and State? Well the State has got to respect that as well. We don't want one religion to force us to become a theocracy and claim that it has all the answers (a hyper citizen of the City of God from Augustine's book), nor do we want the pendulum to swing the opposite extreme and have a hyper citizen from the City of Man claiming that it is religion to be worshipped. The State should know its place; it should read its own memo sent to the Church.
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Daniel Bois is a writer living in Montreal. You can read more of his articles in his blog "Think About Issues." You may contact Daniel Bois at
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