Councils taking note of human rights implications of prayer rituals

Si Gladman / 12 March 2024

The imposition of religious prayers as part of local government meetings contravenes Victoria’s human rights law, according to legal advice provided to one local council.

In a sign that local governments are increasingly accepting that the recital of prayers in formal meetings is legally problematic, the Pyrenees Shire Council, in western Victoria, has removed Christian prayers from the opening of its meetings.

Legal advice provided to the council at its February meeting said the inclusion of prayers was “possibly unlawful” and interfered with the “preservations of equality between those who hold religious beliefs and those who do not”.

The council sought legal advice following a formal complaint that the inclusion of any prayer or spiritual practice – including Indigenous rituals – contravened the state’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act. The complaint argued that the Charter protected: the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief (section 14); the right to peaceful assembly (section 16); and the right to take part in public life (section 18).

The ABC reported that ratepayers’ organisation Council Watch lodged complaints with all councils that continue to observe prayer.

A summary of the legal advice, provided in the agenda for the February meeting, said that the Pyrenees council contravened the Charter each time it included prayers in the agenda, as this was “incompatible with a human right and/or does not give proper consideration to a relevant human right.”

“It would not be any different if the Prayer was non-denominational as this would still discriminate against the rights of someone without religious belief,” said the summary provided in the agenda.

“The legal advice recommended that the Prayer ought not to be included on the agenda for, or read at, future Council meetings.

“The advice also states that, including in the agenda some sort of non-religious moment of reflection or recitation of something emphasising the importance of the deliberations that will take place in the meeting would not be in breach of The Charter.”

Only one councillor, Tanya Kehoe, opposed removing the prayer.

In October last year, the Boroondara City Council in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs removed prayers from its meetings after receiving a legal letter that argued the practice was unlawful.

The letter, sent by Maurice Blackburn lawyers, acting for Councillor Victor Franco, argued that requiring the prayer went beyond the powers given to the council under the Local Government Act and that the practice was incompatible with the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.

In 2022, officers at Banyule City Council warned against introducing prayers to meetings on the grounds that doing so would raise human rights concerns under the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.

“The subject matter of this report does raise Human Rights implications as a person, particularly councillors or staff, who identify as being of no religion or holding secular beliefs or other non-Christian beliefs, may feel coerced by having to recite a Christian prayer as part of the Council Meeting formalities,” a report to council said.

Councils in other states are starting to grapple with the human rights implications of observing religious worship in meetings. In Queensland last year, Fraser Coast council’s chief executive warned councillors that the practice of continuing to invite only Christian leaders to recite prayers at the opening of meetings was “likely discriminatory” under the state’s anti-discrimination and human rights laws.

The Rationalist Society of Australia is actively lobbying and advocating for prayer rituals to be replaced with more appropriate practices in councils and parliaments. See the latest updates here.

Si Gladman is Campaign & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast

All the more reason.