The mayor of a council in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs labelled reciting Christian prayers at the opening of government meetings as exclusionary as he cast the deciding vote to remove the practice.
At the Nillumbik Shire Council on Tuesday, Mayor Ben Ramcharan supported the proposal to remove prayers as part of changes to the Governance Rules, arguing that non-religious people should not be forced to take part in religious worship. With the initial vote locked at 3-3, Mayor Ramcharan had a deciding vote.
Moments earlier, the council had blocked a move by a Catholic councillor and an Anglican councillor to have multi-faith prayers – instead of the usual Christian prayers – inserted into the proposed Governance Rules.
Those two – councillors Peter Perkins and Karen Egan – vowed to fight the outcome by presenting a rescission motion at next month’s council meeting.
Councillor Perkins claimed that it was “disrespectful” to remove prayers from council meetings.
In supporting the changes to the Governance Rules, Mayor Ramcharan and Councillor Geoff Paine pointed to the latest Census figures showing that 50 per cent of residents in the Nillumbik council area identified as not religious.
They also noted that of 10 public submissions to the council on its proposed Governance Rules nine called for the removal of prayers from meetings.
“Councillor Perkins said that if he wasn’t religious he wouldn’t begrudge a prayer for his colleagues. And, look, I don’t begrudge someone praying for my colleagues, either. But what I do begrudge is having to sit here awkwardly and become part of that,” said Mayor Ramcharan.
“As someone who doesn’t practise religion, I shouldn’t have to be in the room when that – you know, I shouldn’t have to have that as part of the meeting that we are partaking in.
“And that’s the issue here in having the prayer. It’s forcing other people to take part in a religion – be you an atheist or agnostic being forced to take part in any religion, or somebody of a different religion being forced to take part in the same faith each month that is not your own faith. It does exclude people. It’s an exclusive thing to have the prayer here in the chamber.”
The Nillumbik Shire Council’s decision to remove prayer from meetings adds to the growing momentum across the country for prayer rituals in parliaments and local councils to be replaced with more inclusive and secular practices.
In January this year, 21 councillors from across Victoria sent an open letter to the Municipal Association of Victoria, the Victorian government, human rights bodies and others, asking for help to remove prayer rituals from council meetings.
Also in Victoria, Boroondara City Council is currently considering public feedback on its proposed Governance Rules – which relate to the council’s prayer ritual at the opening of meetings – following legal concerns.
A number of councils across the country have removed prayer rituals in the past 12 months, including Adelaide City Council, Clarence Council and Glenorchy Council in Tasmania, and Gippsland South Shire Council.
The Victorian government has also reaffirmed its commitment to replace prayers in parliament with something more reflective of the community.
Image: Ben Ramcharan (Facebook)