The Frankston City Council will continue to mandate prayers at the opening of its meetings even though the majority of its residents are not religious and despite the council embarking on a new strategy to promote inclusion, social cohesion and respect for diversity.
The councillors who spearheaded the push for reviewing the place of prayers at the Victorian local government’s meetings argued that current practice was not inclusive or reflective of the community’s diversity.
Earlier this month, Councillor Sue Baker put a motion to the council calling for a report and a public consultation process on the “appropriateness of a single faith prayer” being recited at the opening of meetings.
The motion failed, however, as two of her colleagues supported the motion while three opposed and two abstained.
The decision to continue with imposing religious worship in its meetings appears to be at odds with the council’s own new draft Safer Communities Strategy in which building an inclusive and connected community – one that promotes belonging, social cohesion and respects diversity – was identified as the top outcome.
The mayor, Nathan Conroy, argued that he did not want a public consultation on the matter because the prayer meant a lot to him personally and because Frankston had a “rich history of Christianity”.
He also cited the recent controversy at Adelaide City Council – where the Australian Christian Lobby orchestrated protests inside the public gallery – for his preference to avoid a public debate.
In her speech on the motion, Councillor Baker noted the changed landscape in Victoria, pointing to the increase of citizens identifying as non-religious in the Census and to the trend in other councils moving away from prayer rituals.
At the 2021 Census, 54.5 per cent of Frankston residents said they were not religious (or had other secular beliefs), while an additional 6.4 per cent did not state an affiliation.
Secular Beliefs and Other Spiritual Beliefs and No Religious Affiliation was the largest broad group religious group reported overall (54.4%).
“The use of a Christian prayer – or a single-faith prayer – is inclusive of less than half of the population of the Frankston community,” said Councillor Baker.
“Through this [motion], I believe we have an opportunity to reach out to our community and review what would be the best way forward to be more inclusive and appropriate.”
Councillor Claire Harvey, who described herself as a person of “deep faith”, pointed to the Census data in arguing that the practice of opening local government meetings with prayers did not reflect the diversity of the community.
“For me, though, one of the bottom lines is: if there are members of our councillor group who don’t find this inclusive, that alone, for me, is reason enough to ask some questions,” she said.
“If I went out to the street and I said to the average person, ‘What does it mean to advance God’s glory?’, I don’t know what kind of responses I’d get. I reckon a lot of people would give me blank stares.
“I think we could certainly come up with something richer, more contemporary, more meaningful.”
Councillor Harvey also raised concerns that the recital of prayers as part of formal meetings could put off people seeking to stand for council.
“I would certainly hope that wouldn’t put people off running next year for council, because I want our council to be very diverse,” she said.
“I think when people engage with council and watch our meetings, I would want members from across our community, whatever their faith background, cultural background, to feel that they would be welcome in this chamber.
“I want us to be as inclusive as we can be, and that was part of the Safer Communities Strategy document as well.”
Read the latest news in our campaign on prayers in government.
Si Gladman is Campaign & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.