Imagine this. A prominent Catholic prosecutor lays criminal charges against a prominent Catholic layperson. The Catholic community in Australia goes ballistic and individuals lobby through the media and other outlets for the layperson, and they damn the prosecutor.

This scenario, while common in some countries where the separation of religion and state is not so strictly drawn, is not something we can imagine occurring in 21st century Australia. And for good reason — we would regard it as anathema to our legal system for people to argue that religious or ethnic matters have any bearing on who is prosecuted by whom in our courts.

But it is happening except that it’s not the Catholics but the Jewish community which is conducting such an unedifying fight in public. As The Australian reported yesterday, the Jewish communities of Sydney and Melbourne are bitterly divided over the decision by one of their members, ACCC boss Graeme Samuel, to prosecute billionaire businessman Dick Pratt over the latter’s evidence to an ACCC inquiry into price fixing.

What is disturbing about the wrangling is that it is being condoned and orchestrated by some of the most prominent Jewish leaders and institutions in Australia. The Australian quoted Robert Goot, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, as saying, “This is something about which we could no longer keep silent. The initial (civil) proceedings against Richard Pratt had run their course without much public comment from the Jewish community but the prosecution of him for criminal offences and the possibility of him going to prison is something completely different.”

Goot has been circulating a high powered petition in support of Pratt, although Goot is not commenting on the legal proceedings directly.

And well known Melbourne Jewish activist Colin Rubenstein told The Australian, “The law will decide but there is a whiff that this is very unfortunate and maybe unreasonable.”

A person’s religion, ethnicity or political leanings should be utterly irrelevant in our legal system, no matter who or what they are. Accordingly, that Mr Pratt and Mr Samuel are both Jewish and prominent members of the Jewish community should not be allowed to become factors in the legal proceedings between them and those in the Jewish community who are seeking to do so are undermining the principles of secularism and equality that must always be hallmarks of a legal system in democracy.

There are hundreds of cases which go before our courts each year where the facts are similar to those in the Pratt case — that is, where regulators lay criminal charges after civil proceedings have been brought. That this happens is a legitimate matter for discussion on the grounds of whether it is fair or not to the individual being prosecuted, but it has nothing to do with the religion or ethnicity of the parties involved.

Those in the Jewish community who are painting the Pratt v Samuel matter as some form of ethnic or religious internecine warfare are dangerously blurring the lines between religion and state.