Non-religious councillor Victor Franco has welcomed the City of Boroondara’s decision to stop reciting prayers at the opening of council meetings while a public consultation into the matter takes place.
Yesterday, Councilor Franco told the ABC Radio Breakfast program that he was “pleased” that the council took the decision at its last meeting in what was a dramatic development in his long-running campaign to have prayer rituals removed.
Listen to the full ABC interview here (from the 1:39:55 mark) or read the full transcript below.
On Wednesday, The Age reported that Boroondara council passed an urgent business motion to amend governance rules to remove reference to the prayer after receiving a letter from lawyers acting pro bono for Councillor Franco.
The letter, sent by Jennifer Kanis of Maurice Blackburn lawyers, advised the council that the inclusion of the prayer was unlawful for two reasons: firstly, the rule requiring it went beyond the powers given to the council; and, secondly, it was incompatible with the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
At the 27 February meeting, Boroondara council also agreed to hold a community engagement process to “enable a final decision” on whether the amended standing orders – with the prayer removed – would remain.
Boroondara council has previously held a public consultation on the issue, but chose to ignore the community’s overwhelming desire to replace the prayer rituals with something more inclusive and reflective of society.
In mid 2021, members of the public and community groups, including the Rationalist Society of Australia, flooded the council with 115 submissions opposing the inclusion of a prayer recital as part of official government proceedings.
The RSA has followed Councillor Franco’s case closely since, in early 2021, he moved a motion to remove reference to the prayer from the council’s Governance Rules. In making the case for change, Councillor Franco pointed to a recent peer-reviewed legal analysis published in the Alternative Law Journal that concluded the practice of local councils incorporating prayers into their formal meetings was unlawful.
In late 2021, Councillor Franco began refusing to stand with his colleagues for the recital of Christian prayers at the opening of meetings.
Earlier this year, he was among 21 Victorian councillors who sent a joint letter to the state government opposing the imposition of prayer rituals as part of formal local government meetings.
Yesterday, ABC host Sammy J asked Councillor Franco whether an option would be to replace the prayer with a moment of reflection.
“Yes, I think that’s a possibility – to have a moment of reflection,” said Councillor Franco.
“The Local Government Act requires us to represent the best interests of our community – that’s the expectation; the best interests of our residents and ratepayers, if you like, in our decision making – and to consider diversity and interests and needs of our municipal community.
“But that’s somewhat different to seeking blessings of a particular god and hoping that our deliberations advance the glory of God.”
Transcript of ABC Radio Breakfast interview, Wednesday 9 March 2023
Sammy J (SJ): The City of Boroondara has recently removed a prayer – the Christian prayer – from its council meetings after receiving a letter stating that its inclusion might be unlawful. Why is that? Let’s ask Councillor Victor Franco – a councillor at the City of Boroondara. Good morning, Councillor.
Victor Franco (VF): Good morning, good morning.
SJ: Victor, why do you think the prayer should be removed from council meetings?
VF: Well, for me – I think there are two key reasons. Starting council meetings with a religious prayer from one religion is completely out of step with the values and diversity of our community. According to the 2021 Census, 45 per cent of the Boroondara population now identifies as having no religion. And if we include residents who identified as having other non-religious beliefs, such as atheists and agnostics, it covers more than 47 per cent of the Boroondara population. And 47 per cent is significantly higher than the national average of 38 per cent of residents who identified as having no religion – up from 37 per cent of the Boroondara population who identified as not religious at the 2016 –
SJ: They’re all the figures there. What about you on a personal level? Are you religious?
VF: No. Look, I was brought up without any religion. I’m not religious, my family’s not religious. And, look, I think having an official prayer means that our meetings are not inclusive and welcoming for all, which they should be.
SJ: What has it been until now? You have actually had to recite this prayer? Or do you mumble it? What happens?
VF: Initially, I started standing and participating. Basically, at the start of each council meeting the practice had been – since 1996, I should say – for all the meetings to start with a prayer. I started standing for the prayer, and, at the end, I just opted to sit down. But it’s a very uncomfortable feeling to try and opt out. It’s hard to convey that sense of pressure that comes from everyone around you.
SJ: Well, I think that any listener can – and this is whether people are religious or whether they’re not – anyone can identify with the idea that you’re being asked to do something that is not in accordance with your own faith or your own values, or who you are as a person. People shouldn’t have to be forced to do that.
VF: I think that’s the nub of it for me. The practice makes everyone preset at council meetings, including staff, management, members of the community, feel obliged to participate.
SJ: What do your fellow councillors think? Do others opt out or are they happy with this development — because it has been paused now, hasn’t it?
VF: It has. I’m very pleased because I should say council has taken a decision at the last council meeting to pause and to stop the prayer for the time being. And they’ve decided – my colleagues; I stood out of this decision at the last meeting because of my conflict of interest that I had – but they have resolved to propose ending the practice of the council prayer, which has been in place since 1996, I understand.
SJ: Would something replace it, Victor? The idea of a moment of reflection in common humanity and the fact that you’re all gathered for the greater good is still worth marking — just potentially, as you say, not in a traditional or through one religious prism.
VF: Yes, I think that’s a possibility – to have a moment of reflection. And some councils – I think of the 79 odd councils in Victoria, there are a number that have gone down that path, replacing it with a moment of reflection; not many but some have. It’s an option. The Local Government Act requires us to represent the best interests of our community – that’s the expectation; the best interests of our residents and ratepayers, if you like, in our decision making – and to consider diversity and interests and needs of our municipal community. But that’s somewhat different to seeking blessings of a particular god and hoping that our deliberations advance the glory of god.
SJ: Councillor, thank you for your time. I’m really keen to hear what listeners think. We’ll see whether this becomes a permanent stop rather than a temporary one. But we’ll check back in with you again.