A non-religious councillor who believes religion should be separate from the business of government is refusing to stand for the recital of Christian prayers at the opening of council meetings.
At a meeting of the Boroondara council on 29 November, Victor Franco refused to join with his colleagues in standing for the prayer ritual that seeks blessings from an “Almighty God” and calls for it to “direct and prosper” council’s work.
Earlier in the year, Councillor Franco gained overwhelming community support for his push to have the opening prayer replaced with something more inclusive at the council, which is located in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.
Yet, the council has ignored the public submissions and chosen to continue imposing prayer rituals as part of formal meetings.
Until now, Councillor Franco has continued to stand for the opening prayer. However, he told the Rationalist Society of Australia that he would no longer stand for the prayer recital because it marginalised non-religious people and people of minority faiths.
Everyone in attendance at the meetings – including council staff and members of the public – are effectively compelled to stand for the prayer.
“There is a lot of talk around Australia now about ‘religious freedom’. But I believe that Australians should also have the right to freedom from religion. And that should be especially so in our institutions of government,” he told the RSA.
“In councils all around Australia and in state and federal parliaments, religious prayer rituals continue to be imposed on a daily basis. Non-religious people and people of minority faiths are left to feel excluded and like we’re second-class citizens.
“Our government institutions should be secular and welcoming of all people. I encourage other elected representatives who experience this marginalisation to also refuse to stand for opening prayer rituals.”
Meredith Doig, president of the Rationalist Society of Australia, has welcomed Councillor Franco’s courageous act.
Dr Doig said that it was well overdue for local councils, state and territory parliaments, and federal parliament to become more welcoming of all people by replacing prayers with inclusive opening rituals.
“We know that increasing numbers of Australians are identifying positively as non-religious, and we expect the 2021 census results, when they are released next year, to confirm this trend. Our government institutions need to modernise so that every Australian can feel part of our democracy,” she said.
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