Another two local councils are acting to replace prayer rituals with secular and more inclusive practices to open their meetings, adding to the momentum building across the country for elected institutions to follow suit.
Late last month, the Mildura Rural City Council in north-west Victoria voted in favour of developing a more inclusive affirmation that recognises the diversity of beliefs within the municipality, with a vote set to be held on a proposed new model at an upcoming meeting.
In the state’s east, the Gippsland South Shire Council voted overwhelmingly to replace prayers with a secular statement about working for the “common goal of a strong and united” South Gippsland.
Previously, the Gippsland South council opened with the following prayer: “We pray to God to guide us so that the thoughts we have and the decisions made this day, are in the best interests of the people of the South Gippsland Shire. Amen”.
The council will now open with: “As we gather here from diverse backgrounds and beliefs, may we hold privilege with good care and trust. As we deliberate and discuss, may we be wise in our discernment, fair in our decisions and visionary in our planning. May we be guided by our common goal of a strong and united South Gippsland.”
At Mildura council on 21 September, Councillor Jodi Reynolds – who also tried unsuccessfully to replace the prayers last year – moved a motion for council to “adopt a more inclusive affirmation that recognises the diversity of beliefs within the municipality”. However, her colleagues amended the motion, and agreed that council should begin the process by drafting an affirmation for council’s consideration.
A number of councillors spoke passionately both for and against Councillor Reynolds’ original motion, suggesting the eventual vote could be close.
The current practice is for the mayor to ask councillors to stand and recite the following prayer: “Almighty God, we who are gathered together in council pledge ourselves to work in harmony for the welfare and development of our rural city. Guide us, we pray, in our deliberations. Help us to be fair in our judgement and wise in our actions so that prosperity and happiness shall be the lot of our people. Amen.”
Rationalist Society of Australia president Meredith Doig welcomed the developments, saying they are more evidence that momentum for change on the issue is building across the country.
“The Mildura community is a diverse one, with people from multiple faith backgrounds and, increasingly, of no religion at all. We hope councillors will now work together to develop an opening affirmation that truly reflects the diversity of their community and makes council meetings a more welcoming place for all,” she said.
In a speech to last month’s meeting in Mildura, Councillor Reynolds said the prayer ritual put up a barrier to people wanting to participate.
“Saying a prayer and dedicating our decisions to God at the beginning of each meeting is limiting the diversity of people who would want to participate in this chamber, in our local government, and becoming a councillor,” she said.
“We need to create an environment where everyone would feel welcome and comfortable serving as a councillor so we can maximise the effectiveness of our council to properly represent the community who elects us.”
A number of other councils have replaced prayer rituals in recent months, including Central Coast Council in Tasmania, Wagga Wagga City Council in New South Wales, and Shoalhaven City Council in New South Wales.
About 6,500 people have signed Dr Doig’s petition calling for parliaments and councils to replace prayer rituals with more inclusive and secular practices.
Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman
Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash