Why separation of church and state is critical

If you ever wonder about the wisdom of the Founding Fathers in separating church and state in the Constitution and banning the imposition of a state religion, just look to this story from Malaysia for the sorts of things that can happen when a nation is governed according to religious law:

A Muslim woman forcibly separated from her Hindu husband by Malaysia’s Islamic authorities after 21 years of happy marriage wept inconsolably yesterday after a judge endorsed her decision to hand custody of six of her seven children to her former spouse.

In an unprecedented move for Malaysia – where Islamic religious laws are strictly enforced – the children, aged four to 14, will be raised as Hindus despite being born to a Muslim mother. Last month Selangor state’s Islamic authorities took Raimah Bibi Noordin, 39, and her children away for “rehabilitation” and religious counselling after belatedly declaring that her marriage was illegal.

The couple cannot live together because the husband did not convert to Islam as required by law for their marriage to be legal. In a country where 60% of the population is Muslim, the law also stipulates that the children must be brought up to observe Islam. Anyone born into a Muslim family cannot legally convert.

But Mrs Raimah Bibi’s husband, Marimuthu Periasamy, 43, applied for custody of the ethnic Indian couple’s children after they and his wife were removed to a Malay Muslim village. He said he feared his children would be brainwashed.

This is lunacy of the highest order. A happily married couple together for 21 years has been forcibly separated, destroying their happy life together. Even worse, the children are forcibly denied what is best for them: A stable household with both parents to raise them.

Here’s the understatement of the year about the case:

Lim Kit Siang, an opposition leader, said. “For this to happen to a couple that has lived together for 21 years as a result of a religious conflict is not good for our international image.”

Indeed, it reveals nothing more than barbarism, in which fundamentalist religious dogma trumps freedom the happiness of a stable married couple, and the well-being of children. There is no rational justification that can be made for such a horrible miscarriage of justice.