In an astonishing concession under pressure from the Catholic Church, the New Zealand Human Rights Commission has agreed to remove language from a draft report that simply stated that New Zealand is a secular state and that religion was only for the “private sphere.”
The offending language came from a 2004 report and stated “New Zealand is a secular state with no state religion” and that “matters of religion and belief are deemed to be a matter for the private, rather than public, sphere.”
New Zealand bishops relied on a highly implausible argument under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the New Zealand Bill of Rights. They insisted that, since the Universal Declaration protects freedom of religion, “[t]o suggest that matters of religion and belief belong only in the private sphere undermines the right of churches to seek to influence public opinion and political decision making.” The bishops were supported by the evangelical Vision Network which insisted “no major religion sees itself as a privatised matter.”
Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres promised to revise the language, including the description of New Zealand as a “secular state.”
The problem is that a secular state protects the freedom of religion by preventing the establishment of a single religion. Those advocating the entanglement of church and state often suggest that the freedom of religion demands such an official role. The opposite is true. The original draft affirmed the need to preserve a secular state to remove government from favoring any particular religion. This is made plain by arguments of leaders like Destiny Church Bishop Brian Tamaki that New Zealand is a Christian nation by tradition.
The quick decision to remove the language shows an utter lack of principles by the Commission. The new report will be read now as affirming entanglement and rejecting the notion of a secular state. While the Church can legitimately ask for a line that recognizes the right of religions to speak in public debates like other groups, the actual practice of faith must be defined as a matter left to the private lives of citizens of New Zealand. If New Zealand is not a secular state, what is it?