The Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) is calling on South Australia’s newly elected councils to act swiftly to replace prayer rituals with more secular and inclusive practices at the opening of their meetings.
Of 68 local governments in the state, the RSA understands that about a third – at least 21 – start their meetings by reciting Christian prayers. A number of them serve communities where a majority of the populations are not religious.
Following this month’s elections, South Australia’s councils now have an opportunity to modernise their practices so that they reflect the religious and non-religious diversity of the communities they serve.
Momentum for change is growing across Australia, with a number of councils – including Wagga Wagga and Shoalhaven councils in New South Wales, Gippsland South Shire Council in Victoria, and Central Coast Council in Tasmania – having replaced prayer rituals in recent months. At state level, South Australian upper house member Robert Simms has flagged that he will move a motion in the new year, describing the daily recital of the Lord’s Prayer as “an anachronism that serves no democratic purpose”.
RSA president Dr Meredith Doig said the practice of imposing prayer rituals in government institutions such as councils was neither appropriate nor reflective of modern South Australia.
“There are a number of councils in South Australia where, according to the 2021 Census, the majority of people say they have no religion or are from non-Christian backgrounds. If councils continue to ask that people observe acts of worship at the opening of meetings, they will be sending a message that a significant proportion of locals are excluded from their meetings,” she said.
“South Australia’s newly elected councils now have a great opportunity to modernise their practices and make them more secular and welcoming of all people.”
Dr Doig noted that the majority of South Australian local councils – about two-thirds – already have inclusive opening rituals. For example, Coorong District Council, where 46.1 per cent of people have no religion, begins meetings with an Acknowledgement of Country and this civic affirmation: “We gather today to duly and faithfully carry out our duties to the best of our judgement and ability for the advancement of this district and the benefit of all of our community and fellow citizens.”
However, a number of councils with majority non-religious populations still require prayers to be read at the opening of their meetings.
Adelaide City Council, where 51.6 per cent of people identify as not religious or have an atheist/secular belief, councillors are asked to recite the following prayer at the opening of meetings: “Almighty God, we ask your blessing upon the works of the Adelaide City Council; direct and prosper its deliberations to the advancement of your glory and the true welfare of the people of this City. Amen.”
In Whyalla, where 53.4 per cent of people are not religious and just 35.7 per cent are Christian, the council begins each meeting with prayers calling on “Almighty God to bless the work of this Council to direct its deliberations”.
At Wattle Range council, where 52.2 per cent of people are not religious, council meetings begins with: “Almighty God, we pray that in this meeting we speak honestly, listen attentively, think clearly and decide wisely, for the good of our District and the wellbeing of our people. Amen.”
Dr Doig said it was disappointing that some media outlets had, in recent reporting of Mr Simms’ push, tried to sensationalise the issue by making out it was an effort to “ban God”.
“What we are suggesting is not controversial; most of South Australia’s local governments already respect the religious and non-religious diversity of their communities and open their meetings in secular and inclusive ways,” she said.
“It’s time for the remaining councils to follow suit, and then for the state parliament to do likewise in the new year.”
In recent years, some South Australia councils have taken steps towards making their opening rituals more inclusive. At least three councils – Prospect, Unley and Burnside – have replaced Christian prayers in favour of non-denominational prayers.
“We encourage councils to consider a range of options for making their opening rituals more inclusive of all people, including non-religious people, and better reflective of their communities. Such options may include a moment of silent reflection or a secular pledge to work in the best interest of the community,” said Dr Doig.
According to the 2021 Census, South Australia ranks second, behind Tasmania, as the least religious population in Australia, with 45.8 per cent of people overall saying they are not religious – up from 36 per cent in 2016. About 40 per cent of South Australians identify as Christian, while about 8 per cent identify with non-Christian religions.
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