Shoalhaven councillors have ignored claims of religious-based discrimination in blocking an investigation into the legality of imposing exclusively Christian prayers as part of government meetings.
By a majority vote of 8-5 last night, the council, located on the New South Wales south coast, overruled an earlier decision to launch an inquiry into the lawfulness of starting official meetings with a religious sermon.
As a result, non-religious people and members of minority faiths attending council meetings will continue to be asked to observe Christian prayers.
The imposition of Christian-only prayers has triggered a public outcry in the Shoalhaven region since Buddhist councillor Kaye Gartner was interrupted while reciting a Buddhist prayer and then blocked from being able to do so again.
As reported by the Rationalist Society of Australia earlier this week, the Buddhist Council of NSW branded Shoalhaven council’s behaviour as discriminatory and unwelcoming for minority faiths.
At yesterday’s meeting, the councillors who moved a joint rescission motion claimed that retaining the Christian prayer was essential to protecting Australia’s heritage and Western liberal democracy.
Councillor Greg Watson accused those pushing for a more inclusive opening ritual as waging a “deliberate assault on the elements that give us the governments we have and that give us our democracy”.
Having called for an inquiry following the publication of a recently published peer-reviewed legal analysis that suggested the practice of opening meetings with prayer was unlawful, Councillor Gartner (pictured) said she was disappointed with the outcome.
During last night’s debate, she repeatedly pointed out that her original notice of motion was merely asking that council seek legal advice on the lawfulness of imposing a particular prayer as part of its meetings.
“The notice of motion wasn’t to the value of any particular prayer. [It was about] seeking legal advice on the lawfulness of exclusively Christian prayer under the Local Government Act. It was not about anything else,” she said.
Other councillors who supported Councillor Gartner in opposing the rescission motion blasted the council for being intolerant and for failing to reflect the community’s diversity.
At the 2016 Census, people of non-Christian faiths made up almost 2% of the population in the Shoalhaven council area, while 29.1% of people marked ‘No religion’. Between the 2011 and 2016 censuses, affiliation with Christianity declined 10% to 58.6%.
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman