Non-religious councillor Victor Franco has triumphed in his three-year effort to remove prayer rituals from formal meetings at the Boroondara City Council in Victoria, with a number of conservative councillors begrudgingly joining him in voting to support the reform.
At last night’s meeting, the council voted 9-1 in favour of complete removal of the opening prayer ritual.
A number of councillors revealed that they were “disappointed” to be doing so but wanted the council to move on from the issue, which has been a topic of controversy since 2021.
The conservative-leaning council had previously blocked a number of Councillor Franco’s attempts to remove prayer, but on this occasion, some cited the prospect of a legal challenge and rising costs as reasons to back down.
Earlier this year, Maurice Blackburn lawyers, acting pro bono for Councillor Franco, sent a letter advising the council that the inclusion of the prayer was unlawful, arguing that requiring it went beyond the powers given to the council and that the practice was incompatible with the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
In a speech on the debate last night, Councillor Jim Parke – who moved the motion to remove the prayer – said the majority, including him, would not be supporting the removal of the prayer if councillors had not felt “hamstrung”.
“That is abundantly clear. This is a motion that very few councillors want to support but feel they have absolutely and utterly no alternative. That’s where I landed… We’re going to vote for this but with heavy hearts and with grave disappointment,” he said.
RSA president Dr Meredith Doig welcomed the outcome as a “win for secularism” and said it would help continue to build momentum for change regarding the practice of reciting prayers in local councils and state parliaments across Australia, and in the chambers of the federal parliament.
The sole councillor who voted against removing the prayer, Mormon Cynthia Watson, rejected arguments on the grounds of separation of church and state, and made reference to the Rationalist Society of Australia’s representation to the council on the matter in 2021.
“…we’ve heard that [the prayer] causes offence. Any offence, or to the offended, is a choice. An act of harm, however, is not a choice. When the Rationalist Society came and made representation to council regarding the efficacy of the council prayer, I asked the question: ‘Was a prayer an act of harm?’ The response was: ‘No’,” she said.
In his speech on the debate, Councillor Franco said that the public consultation this year delivered an overwhelming result in favour of removing prayers, with 86 per cent of submissions backing the proposal. But he noted that the council had previously ignored a similar result from a public consultation in 2021.
“These calls fell on deaf ears. I hope they will now be listened to. These calls are consistent with the demographic nature of our current community,” he said.
“It’s about our meetings being inclusive and welcoming for all… With an official prayer, we have effectively been saying, in our past practices, to non-believers like me, and to those who belong to non-Christian faiths, that we are not equal and our beliefs are less important…
“The reality is that we should all be able to participate in the entirety of council meetings without having to participate in someone else’s religious rituals.”
Councillor Parke raised doubts that the result of the public consultation was a true reflection of community sentiment.
“Quite frankly, I’m not so sure that our community actually did speak. There were a number who were very actively campaigning for particular responses when feedback was sought. I have very little faith in what was the outcome of that community consultation,” he said.
Councillor Franco began his push for reform in May 2021, when he first moved a motion – unsuccessfully – calling for the removal of prayers.
After the council ignored community demands and decided to continue with prayers in mid 2021, Councillor Franco refused to stand for observance of the ritual.
In a video on social media in early 2022, he said he remained “optimistic” for change and committed to advocating for secularism.
In January this year, he was among 21 councillors from across Victoria who signed a joint letter to the state government and other bodies, including human rights bodies and local government associations, urging them to intervene on the prayer issue.
Councillor Franco is set to appear as a guest speaker at the first Secularism Australia Conference, being held in Sydney on Saturday 2 December.
Si Gladman is Campaign & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.