The chief executive of Fraser Coast Regional Council has warned councillors that the practice of continuing to invite only Christian leaders to recite prayers at the opening of meetings was “likely discriminatory”.
At a meeting of the council yesterday, CEO Ken Diehm said he was ethically and legally bound to ensure council processes do not discriminate.
The council voted 7–4 to reject a motion proposing that Mr Diehm provide a report on the feasibility of and the process needed for council procedures to allow non-Christian and secular community figures to speak at the opening of meetings.
Councillor David Lewis wanted a report to consider a proposal to change the Standing Orders so that a ‘reflection’ opened the meetings instead of a prayer. In a powerful speech, he argued that the current practice of reciting Christian-only prayers excluded half of the community and that, as a secular body, the council should not play favourites in matters of religion.
Mayor George Seymour, a Christian and churchgoer, also spoke in favour of Councillor Lewis’s motion, arguing that council was “not my church” and should represent the entire community.
Prior to the vote, Mr Diehm said that, based on legal advice he had received, the Standing Orders were not discriminatory, as they only required that an opening prayer be recited. However, he said the council’s custom of allowing only Christian clergy to say the prayer was “likely discriminatory” under Queensland’s anti-discrimination and human rights laws.
After the vote, he told councillors he would pursue further legal advice and would possibly have to change the current practice.
“As a Chief Executive Officer, I’m ethically and legally bound to make sure that we do not have processes that discriminate against other people,” he said.
“So I will seek the advice of the Human Rights Commission. I don’t believe that they will provide advice. Their practice in the past is that they have been reluctant to provide advice. If they did provide advice that confirms that position – that the process is discriminatory – I will be stopping the current process and practice that requires only Christian religious leaders to say the opening prayer, and bringing in a non-discriminatory process for all religious leaders to be able to say the opening prayer.”
How the issue plays out at the Fraser Coast council could have wider ramifications, as other councils in Queensland allow only Christian ministers to recite opening prayers. At the Redlands City Council, for example, Christian ministers recite prayers and deliver sermons as part of a ‘devotional segment’ that lasts up to 10 minutes.
At the Banyule City Council in Victoria last year, a council report warned a proposal to introduce Christian prayers to its meetings would raise human rights implications for non-religious and non-Christian councillors and staff, who may feel “coerced” into participating in religious practices.
Asked yesterday what his response would be if a non-Christian and non-religious community representative wished to give the opening remarks under the current practice, Mr Diehm said that, based on the legal advice, he would not be able to deny their request.
“I’d write a report to council and let council determine it,” he said.
“Ethically and legally I have a responsibility not to discriminate against people and oversee processes that, potentially, could be discriminatory. If I oversee discriminatory practices, there is potentially personal liability and there’s also potentially corporate liability.
“If the council did not change its position with regards to the Standing Orders, then based on the current legal advice, and after consultation with the Human Rights Commission, and assuming that they confirm that it is discriminatory practice, then I would be bound to stop and remedy the discrimination. And I would have to implement a process that allowed all religious faiths to nominate to say the opening prayer.”
At the opening of yesterday’s meeting, a local Christian preacher gave a sermon, which included the Lord’s Prayer, of more than one minute in length.
Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash