Christian councillors at the Nillumbik Shire Council in Victoria will this week seek to re-impose religious worship as part of formal council meetings, even though most residents in the local government area identify as not religious.
Councillor Peter Perkins (pictured) has placed on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting a motion to rescind the council’s previous adoption of Governance Rules that removed the practice of having Christian ministers open meetings with prayers.
As reported by the Rationalist Society of Australia, Mayor Ben Ramcharan last month cast the deciding vote in support of the new Governance Rules after the initial result tied at 3-3, with councillors split on the prayer issue.
One councillor who was absent at the June meeting could tip the vote in favour of re-introducing prayers if he were to attend on Tuesday.
The controversy comes as a growing number of councillors in Victoria are calling for the state government to intervene on the matter and protect their right to freedom from religion as they go about their work.
Earlier this year, 21 councillors signed the joint letter opposing the practice of local governments opening meetings with prayers.
The RSA understands that 38 councillors across the state have now signed the joint letter to the state government and the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, among other bodies.
Also, a number of councils across Australia have taken action on the issue in recent years, responding to public calls for them to replace prayer rituals with more inclusive and welcoming practices.
At last month’s Nillumbik council meeting, Councillor Perkins claimed that it was “disrespectful” to remove prayers from council meetings. He joined with fellow Christian councillors in telling that meeting that they would support moving to a multi-faith prayer, but not the removal of prayers.
Mayor Ramcharan argued that non-religious people and non-Christians should not be forced to take part in religious practices as part of formal government meetings.
“And that’s the issue here in having the prayer. It’s forcing other people to take part in a religion… It does exclude people. It’s an exclusive thing to have the prayer here in the chamber,” he said.
RSA president Meredith Doig wrote to all Nillumbik councillors earlier this month (see letter below), welcoming the decision to remove religious worship from meetings.
“I congratulate the Nillumbik Council for making its meetings secular and more inclusive of all people who live in the Nillumbik local government area by removing religious worship practices from your formal meetings,” she said.
We commend the Nillumbik council for its decision to remove religious worship to make its meetings secular and more inclusive. We believe the change will be widely supported throughout the Nillumbik community.
Follow the latest developments in our campaign on prayer in government here.
Photo: Vicki Ward MP for Eltham (Facebook)
Letter to councillors of Nillumbik Shire Council, 12 July 2023
Dear Mayor Ramcharan and Councillors,
I’m writing on behalf of the Rationalist Society of Australia, Australia’s oldest freethought community organisation, promoting evidence-based policy, reason and secularism.
I congratulate Nillumbik Council for making its meetings secular and more inclusive of all people who live in the Nillumbik local government area by removing religious worship practices from your formal meetings.
The Nillumbik community is rich in diversity, consisting of people from various cultural, religious and non-religious backgrounds. According to the national Census, your council area is fast becoming a largely non-religious community. Fifty-two per cent of people in Nillumbik marked ‘no religion’ (or a related non-religious belief) in the 2021 Census.
Every Australian has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – as per Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Victorian Human Rights Charter. In 2018, the Ruddock inquiry into religious freedom in Australia emphasised that such freedom of thought, conscience and religion was “a right enjoyed by all, not just those of faith”, and protects “those who live a life of faith and those who live by other beliefs or, indeed, no beliefs” (emphasis added).
The Nillumbik Council’s practice of indulging in Christian worship at the opening of council meetings failed to respect the worldviews of non-religious people and people of minority faiths. This had the effect that some councillors, staff members, and members of the public – who did not belong to the council’s officially favoured religion – felt unwelcome and excluded, their beliefs unrecognised and diminished.
In reforming its business rules, Nillumbik has become the latest of many local councils across Australia leading the way towards a more modern and inclusive society by removing exclusionary acts of religious worship from their meetings. Other councils to have recently done so include Adelaide City Council in South Australia, Clarence Council, Central Coast Council and Glenorchy Council in Tasmania, Wagga Wagga City Council in New South Wales, and Shoalhaven City Council in New South Wales, and Gippsland South Shire Council in Victoria.
Momentum for change on this issue is building. Earlier this year, 21 councillors from across Victoria signed a joint letter to the state government calling for it to intervene and protect their right to freedom from religion. The Victorian state government has pledged to remove prayers from the parliament in its current term. Several motions have also been presented, or will soon be presented, in other state parliaments across the country.
We commend the Nillumbik Council for removing religious worship and thereby making its meetings secular and more inclusive. The change will be widely supported throughout the Nillumbik community.
Dr Meredith Doig,
President, Rationalist Society of Australia