The Boroondara community in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs has sent a clear message that it wants prayers removed from local government meetings, with more than 80 per cent of public submissions supporting the proposal.
A report published on the Boroondara City Council’s website yesterday ahead of Monday’s council meeting reveals that, of 326 submissions received as part of a public consultation, 86 per cent called for the removal of prayers
Just 45 submissions (12 per cent) opposed the removal of prayers from the council’s Governance Rules.
At the general meeting on Monday evening, the council will now consider three recommendations: 1) the removal of the prayer without any replacement ritual; 2) replacing the prayer with a “statement of commitment”; 3) introducing a multi-faith religious observance, along with a non-religious statement of commitment.
Earlier this year, Boroondara City Council decided to undertake a public consultation on the prayer issue after receiving a letter from lawyers acting pro bono for Councillor Victor Franco that cited concerns about human rights and the potential illegalities of including prayer rituals in the Governance Rules.
Councillor Franco, an atheist, has been engaged in a long-running battle to replace the exclusionary prayer ritual with secular and more inclusive practices. He first moved a motion in May 2021 calling for the council’s practices to be made more welcoming and inclusive of all people.
In the same year, the council held a public consultation into the prayer issue as part of a broader process of examining its Governance Rules, but chose to ignore the community’s overwhelming desire to remove prayers.
Councillor Franco (pictured) then refused to stand for the recital of prayers and joined with another 20 councillors across Victoria who wrote a joint letter to the state government and other bodies, including human rights bodies and local government associations, urging them to intervene on the prayer issue.
The council agenda report provided for the upcoming meeting noted that 19 per cent of submissions offered suggestions of a “preferred way forward”, although the consultation process did not ask for respondents to provide alternatives.
Of the total submissions received, 11 per cent suggested that council adopt a secular affirmation or a moment of silence, while just 3 per cent suggested a rotating multifaith prayer.
Despite the tiny public support for a multifaith prayer, recommendation 3 in the report has proposed a multifaith religious observance to be introduced, along with a non-religious statement of commitment.
The second recommendation has suggested that a “statement of commitment” be introduced, but does not detail whether such a statement would be secular in nature or would include religious references.
Due to the legal considerations, councillors may seek to discuss the matter – and could decide it – in a part of the meeting closed to the public.
The agenda report noted that the council had received legal advice about how the proposed change would interact with Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
In a submission to the consultation process earlier this year, Rationalist Society of Australia president Dr Meredith Doig noted the large proportion of Boroondara citizens identifying as not religious and urged council “to do the right thing by its community” and update its practices to respect all worldviews equally.
Si Gladman is Campaign & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.
Timeline of events
May 2021: Councillor Franco moves a motion to remove reference to the prayer from the council’s Governance Rules. “Council’s governance rules as proposed try to make it part of the job as councillors to participate in an act of Christian worship. Not all of us are Christian, and Boroondara Council is not a church,” he argues. His motion is unsuccessful.
June 2021: Councillor Franco calls on the public to make submissions to a public consultation taking place on the council’s Governance Rules.
July 2021: The Boroondara community backs Councillor Franco’s call for more inclusive meeting practices, with 115 public submissions opposing the inclusion of a prayer recital as part of official government proceedings and just 59 submissions in favour of retaining the prayer.
July 2021: The Boroondara Council decides to ignore public opinion and continues to impose Christian prayers as part of its meetings, voting 9-2 in favour of adopting the proposed Governance Rules with the prayer included.
December 2021: Councillor Franco refuses to stand for the recital of Christian prayers at the opening of council meetings.
January 2022: In a video on social media, Councillor Franco says he “remains optimistic” for change and says he is committed to advocating for secularism.
Our govt institutions – our local councils, state & federal parliaments – should be secular & welcoming places for all people. That’s why I’ll continue to push for prayer rituals to be replaced with more inclusive & welcoming practices #auspol #vicpol #IStandForSecularism pic.twitter.com/1VRrUWjimn
— Victor Franco (@vfranco6) January 23, 2022
January 2023: Councillor Franco is among 21 councillors from across Victoria who sign a joint letter to the state government and other bodies, including human rights bodies and local government associations, urging them to intervene on the prayer issue. In the letter, the ‘Victorian 21’ call for freedom from religion and for council meetings to become more inclusive and welcoming for everyone.
March 2023: After receiving a letter from lawyers acting pro bono for Councillor Franco that cites concerns about human rights and the potential illegalities of including prayer rituals in the Governance Rules, Boroondara Council decides to pause the practice of reciting prayers and undergo a public consultation.
May 2023: A consultation period began for members of the public to make submissions on the proposal to remove prayers from the Governance Rules.
October 2023: The Boroondara community sends a clear message that it wants prayers removed from local government meetings, with more than 80 per cent of public submissions supporting the proposal.