Labor changes opening rituals, but prayers remain in Senate

Si Gladman / 29 September 2022

The Rationalist Society of Australia welcomes the Senate’s decision to change the sequence and wording of its opening daily rituals but remains concerned that exclusionary Christian prayers continue to be recited.

Yesterday, the Senate voted 30-23 in favour of a Labor motion to open proceedings with the Acknowledgement of Country instead of Christian prayers, and to insert a new preamble to the prayers. 

Before reading aloud two prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer, the President of the Senate, Sue Lines (pictured), will now invite senators “to pray or reflect in your own way on your responsibilities to the people of Australia and to future generations”.

In July, Senator Lines, an atheist, made public her principled stand against the recital of Christian prayers, saying she “would like to see prayers gone”. At the time, Labor colleagues, including Penny Wong and Katy Gallagher, said prayers should stay.

The RSA understands that support is growing among members of parliament to replace Christian prayers at the opening of each day. Independent David Pocock, who has the balance of power in the Senate, is among those wanting change, recently revealing his preference for “a minute of contemplative silence and reflection”.

RSA president Dr Meredith Doig said that Senators should now be given the opportunity to vote for replacing the prayer ritual with something more reflective of the religious and non-religious diversity of the Australian community.

“With the vote on Wednesday, the Senate has shown it can amend its standing orders without fuss. It’s a welcome first step toward making the parliament more inclusive, but a parliament that continues to impose exclusively Christian prayers is not a parliament that respects the diversity of the Australian community,” she said.

“For the benefit of the non-religious and those of faiths other than Christian, we would urge both the Senate and the House of Representatives to simply invite representatives to ‘pray or reflect in your own way on your responsibilities to the people of Australia and to future generations.’ This would be a better reflection of Australia’s pluralist democracy, as it would not privilege any one worldview. And it would positively remind our representatives of their duties to the people.”

In 2018, a Senate inquiry into whether to continue with prayers concluded there was no “momentum for change”. However, momentum has since been building at different levels of government for prayer rituals to be replaced with more inclusive practices.

A number of local governments have replaced prayers with moments of reflection or with pledges to work in the interest of their community. In the Victorian state parliament, the Andrews government has vowed to address the issue after the upcoming state election – a move that has won support with Melbourne’s The Age newspaper.

Notably, new federal Labor minister Clare O’Neil and assistant minister Tim Watts have, in a 2015 co-authored book, said the “parliamentary sponsorship of a single religion is unnecessarily exclusionary”.

In recent months, about 6,500 people have signed Dr Doig’s petition calling for the parliament to replace prayers with something more inclusive.

Yesterday’s motion to amend standing order 50 was put by Labor Senator Anthony Chisholm on behalf of Senator Gallagher.

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

All the more reason.