In local councils and parliaments across Australia, exclusively Christian prayers are recited to open the official proceedings of the institution.
In the national parliament, elected representatives are asked to stand for the Lord’s Prayer at the opening of each day in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
At the local government level, the practice varies. Some councils begin with a version of the Lord’s Prayer or other prayers that commit councillors to working for the ‘glory of God’. Others invite local religious ministers into meetings to deliver a sermon and prayer. At the Redlands City Council in Queensland, for example, some sermons have lasted up to 10 minutes.
What’s the problem?
Government meetings should be inclusive and welcoming for everyone. Governments should not have favourite religions.
Reciting a Christian prayer at the start of meetings is exclusionary. It means that many elected representatives, staff members, and members of the public who do not belong to the officially favoured religion are made to feel unwelcome, excluded, and like second-class citizens.
Government institutions are supposed to represent and serve all Australians. They should be promoting inclusiveness and be welcoming of all people. No one should be made to feel like they don’t belong in a government institution in Australia just because of their religious or non-religious beliefs.
Privileging one religion is especially problematic. The Australian community is diverse and made up of people who adhere to a great variety of religious belief systems. There is also a rapidly increasing number of Australians who are self-identifying as having no religion. Indeed, the 2021 Census is expected to show the percentage of Christians plummet to below 50% and the percentage of non-religious people grow to well above one-third of the population.
The imposition of a compulsory religious ritual is discriminatory against people of other faiths and people who are not religious. And it is an affront to the principle of separation of religion and state.
In regard to prayers in local councils, a peer-reviewed legal analysis published in the Alternative Law Journal in 2021 concluded the practice of local councils incorporating prayers into their formal meetings was unlawful.
What the RSA is doing
We’ve been busy raising awareness about the issues of prayers in government – at the local, state and federal levels of government – and lobbying for change.
At the level of local councils, we’ve been highlighting the cases of the Boroondara Council in Victoria and Shoalhaven Council in New South Wales, among others, where individual councillors are calling for more inclusive opening rituals to meetings.
Our work on these cases has helped these councillors spread the word on social media and in their local media outlets. We’ve also been spending money to advertise our social media content to people living in these council areas.
Watch RSA president Meredith Doig at a Boroondara City Council meeting, where members of the public were given a chance to speak on the council’s practice of opening meetings with prayer.
Read the recent updates in the ‘Latest on this issue’ section below.
What you can do
You can help us to make an impact by making a donation to our RSA Fighting Fund. Every dollar will help to build public awareness and ignite a movement at the grassroots level to achieve change. In the future, money from the RSA Fighting Fund may go toward supporting legal challenges.
You can also contact your local councillor or state/territory or federal member of parliament to urge them to replace prayer rituals with something more welcoming and inclusive.