Once again, Fiji church leaders have raised objections to the establishment of a secular state based on erroneous representations of what secularism means, this time in Fiji. In what seems to be the first salvo in an election campaign leading up to the 2014 elections there, senior Catholic and Protestant clerics have come out against provisions in the recently adopted Constitution that declares Fiji a secular state, in which religion is deemed “personal”. It was reported in the Fiji News [on] 7 December 2013 that “the Catholic and Methodist Church do not think Fiji is ready for a secular state”, declaring that religion is not a personal, but a public matter.

Constitutional secularism does not mean society must be atheist or non-religious. It means precisely the opposite. It means that the government does not interfere with what you believe, whatever that may be

Catholic Archbishop Peter Loy Chong claimed that Fiji is “too religious to become a secular state”. Does he mean that a secular state can be achieved only when everyone (or at least a proportion of the population he does not nominate) is not religious?

This is to misrepresent what constitutional secularism is all about. Constitutional secularism does not mean society must be atheist or non-religious. It means precisely the opposite. It means that the government does not interfere with what you believe, whatever that may be, so that everyone has the same freedom to have and manifest their beliefs.

Political secularism is thus is not a belief itself. It is a mechanism by which the government ensures that no-one will be coerced, disadvantaged, or unduly influenced by the dictates of the beliefs of others. Nor will government advance such beliefs and values, or favour those who hold or promote them. Any state that is not truly secular tends towards theocracy rather than democracy.

Methodist minister the Rev. James Bhagwan, (with whom the Archbishop reportedly agreed) predicted that secularism could lead to possible banning of religious education. What does he mean? Firstly, secularism does not ban religious education: it simply prevents government funding or promotion of religious education. Secondly, this ignores the provision of section 22(2) of the Fiji Constitution, for freedom of “every person” to manifest their belief in “teaching” reinforced by section 22(4) that gives every religious community or denomination the right to establish places of education. A ban on religious education would be unconstitutional and liable to invalidation by the courts. “The church could not be confined in a private place” was another statement Mr Bhagwan made. This again ignored the constitutional right to worship, observe, practice and teach religion “in private or in public”: section 22(2) of the Constitution.

Bhagwan stated that “A Fijian is at the same time a member of society and a citizen of the state.” This is true, but the Reverend’s conclusion from this fact is wrong. As a member of society and a citizen of the state, everyone must reciprocate the rights of others, not violate them. Every citizen should allow others the right to believe and act as they think best. They may seek to persuade them on religious matters, as they may seek to persuade them on non-religious matters. But in their dealings with the rest of society, citizens must not demand that others abide by their sectarian doctrines.

Finally, Bhagwan reportedly argued, “… public institutions work according to a set of values whether they acknowledge them or not,” and therefore state neutrality is impossible. It is true public institutions work according to a set of values, but those values are not based on religious beliefs, but on accepted values on which everyone can agree. What secularism says is the state should reject religious or anti-religious doctrines as a basis for prescriptive legislation or policy. Laws and policies must be justified in terms of public reason, but public reason is not value-free.

In a liberal democracy, these values are expressed in the basic political rights such as personal autonomy, freedom of belief, speech, association and assembly, and the rule of law. They are there in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, to which nearly every nation on earth has subscribed.

The clerics’ arguments are based on the myth that neutrality advantages the secular world and is therefore anti-religious. This panders to the fear that constitutional secularism means the banishment of religion or other life-stance belief from public life, and maybe even private life. This is not what secularism is about. Impartiality towards beliefs in government policy and law making does not mean the state ignores beliefs altogether. What people often forget is that impartiality works both ways: government does not favour belief, but it does not disfavour it either. Thus legislation prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of belief applies to both positive and negative discrimination. That is, separation of church and state.

Dr Meg Wallace was a senior legal officer in the Department of Justice and Community Safety of the Australian Capital Territory.