The Shoalhaven councillor who successfully moved a motion to have Christian prayers rituals replaced with a more inclusive practice to open meetings drew inspiration from Rationalist Society of Australia president Meredith Doig.
In speaking to her motion on Tuesday night (see full text of the speech below), Councillor and Deputy Mayor Liza Butler quoted from an address that Dr Doig gave to the Boroondara City Council in July last year.
The new-look council, sitting for the first time since local elections in New South Wales late last year, voted 7-6 in favour of removing the prayer and replacing it with a moment of silent reflection.
The issue had caused much controversy since the then conservative majority banned Buddhist and former councillor Kaye Gartner from reciting a Buddhist prayer to open a meeting in September 2020 and then mandated that the prayer could only be Christian. Ms Gartner pushed unsuccessfully last year for the council to investigate the lawfulness of beginning meetings with sectarian prayers.
In her speech, Councillor Butler (pictured) said the recital of Christian prayers at the start of meetings made many elected representatives, staff members and members of the public feel excluded and unwelcome.
She quoted Dr Doig in referring to the three principles that should be honoured in a pluralistic and democratic society.
“And they are freedom, equality and separation – freedom to practice one’s faith or belief, as long as by doing so you do not harm others or impinge on their rights; equality between religious and nonreligious worldviews so that neither has an advantage or a disadvantage; and separation between religious institutions and those of the state,” she said.
Ms Gartner welcomed the new council’s decision to replace the prayer with a more inclusive practice.
“The Shoalhaven City Council has committed to include all residents in its meeting procedures now. Community members will celebrate with me as the minute of silence ensures religious freedom for all,” she said.
The RSA understands that councillors opposed to the removal of the prayer will try to overturn the ruling through a rescission motion.
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigl[email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman
Councillor Liza Butler’s full speech
I propose the council adopt points 1-16 except for item 2, whereby we remove the current practice of reciting a Christian prayer and instead we have a moment of silence and reflection before the meetings begin.
This is 2022. We live in such a diverse, ecumenical and multicultural society as ours, with numerous cultures and religions represented within our communities. The reading of a Christian prayer is discriminating and holds no part in our public institutions, especially within the chamber of Shoalhaven City Council.
Local government is at the heart of its communities, and local government plays an important role in fostering inclusion and participation of all residents. Yet, by reciting a Christian prayer at the start of meetings, it is exclusionary. It means that many elected representatives, staff members and members of the public that do not belong to the officially favoured religion are made to feel unwelcome and isolated. In short, they are made to feel ‘other’.
The 2016 Census tells us that 29% of Australians have no religious affiliations. Another 8% stated that they were affiliated with other religions, and approximately another 11% declared religion ‘not stated’. This equates to only 52% of Australians identifying as Christian. However, this does not equate to the lesser percentage of Australians attending church or actively involved in church activities. It is a skewed and misrepresented result.
It is also predicted that the 2021 Census results will increase to have 35% of the Australian population indicating that they have no religious affiliation.
All government institutions are supposed to represent and serve all Australians. And, as such, Shoalhaven City Council should be promoting inclusiveness and be welcoming of all people, and respecting the wide range of beliefs and customs throughout our LGA.
The Rationalist Society is Australia’s oldest freethought group and it was established in 1906. It advocates for reason and evidence being the basis of policy making. So while the Rationalist Society promotes freedom of religion, it also asserts that no particular faith should be guiding government.
These are the words of the Society’s president, Dr Meredith Doig:
“If you genuinely believe in freedom of religion, then you must allow others the right to freedom from religion. In a liberal democratic society, it must be true that everybody is free to believe whatever they want in the privacy of their own minds, but they are not free to manifest those beliefs in any way that they like.
“There are three principles that should be honoured in a pluralistic and democratic society like ours. And they are freedom, equality and separation – freedom to practice one’s faith or belief, as long as by doing so you do not harm others or impinge on their rights; equality between religious and nonreligious worldviews so that neither has an advantage or a disadvantage; and separation between religious institutions and those of the state.”
We here are now part of a progressive and forward thinking council that is looking to the future, not living in the past.
While campaigning over the past six months, it was overwhelmingly obvious that the community was desperate for change in representation. People of the Christian faith told me that they did not support the reading of a Christian prayer. In the words of one Christian constituent: “Faith should not be weaponised. Don’t force people to listen to you pray. Churches are for teaching faith; council meetings are for the entire community.”
By having a moment of reflection at the start of each meeting, it allows each councillor and all those present to offer a silent prayer to whoever or whatever they believe in quietly and respectfully, and allows for the inclusion of all. Thank you.