Councillors at Hawkesbury City Council in New South Wales have stood up for the principle of separation of church and state in blocking a push to have Christian worship re-inserted into council proceedings.
At the council’s 31 January meeting, Councillor Eddie Dogramaci introduced a motion proposing the return of prayer recitals at the opening of each meeting and claiming that prayers had been “unfairly abolished” six years ago.
The council voted 8-4 against the motion, with councillors arguing that meetings that council must observe separation of church and state and that “God business” had no place in formal government meetings.
Councillor Danielle Wheeler (pictured), an atheist, said prayers did not belong in a political chamber that made decisions for everyone in the Hawkesbury council region.
“Council is not a church. I don’t wish to participate in your religious practices. It would be coercive to expect me or any other councillor or members of the public, or the staff, to participate,” she said.
“Those people should not have to wait outside while you do your God business. This is a public chamber and our place of work.”
She argued that appeals to tradition and heritage in the need to begin meetings with prayers were “deeply selective”, ignoring that churches had “committed heinous crimes”.
In Victoria last year, a similar attempt was made to re-introduce Christian prayers to meetings at the Banyule City Council.
That attempt was also blocked, with a council report warning of the human rights implications of imposing prayers on non-religious and non-Christian councillors, and finding there was “no compelling or justifiable reasons to introduce a Council Prayer that refers to God or has religious association”.
At Hawkesbury, Councillor Amanda Kotlash said the idea of having to observe prayers at the opening of meetings was “disturbing” and “not inclusive”.
“No matter where we come from or what we believe, we have been elected to be here. And I don’t think it’s a good idea to have one person’s faith having to be at the beginning of every time we meet,” she said.
“Once we make a decision to accept the thoughts or the prayers or the blessings of somebody’s particular faith, then we’re putting an emphasis that that is reflective of most of the population. And we’ve clearly seen that it’s not.”
Councillor Mary Lyons-Buckett said she disliked the increasing use of religion as a tool by some politicians.
“I think that that has led to conflict. It’s not an appealing thing to the community. We operate, as any level of government, on the strong principle of separation of church and state. And that is how we should continue,” she said.
In arguing for his motion, Councillor Dogramaci claimed that 87 per cent of the country was a “predominantly Christian society” and said the world was deteriorating due to “killings, murders, drugs”.
Councillor Nathan Zamprogo labeled the proposal to re-introduce prayer rituals a “stunt by an impending state government candidate”, as Councillor Dogramaci was preparing to compete at the state election for the seat of Hawkesbury.