Prayer push blocked as council warns of human rights implications

Si Gladman / 31 August 2022

A Victorian council warned that a proposal to introduce Christian prayers to its meetings would raise human rights implications for non-religious and non-Christian councillors and staff, concerned that they may feel “coerced”.

In July, Banyule City Council, located in Melbourne’s north-east suburbs, voted against including a prayer in its meeting following a council investigation that found there were “no compelling or justifiable reasons to introduce a Council Prayer that refers to God or has religious association”.

The report noted (see ‘agenda’ for the meeting of 18 July 2022) that councillors were required to be representative of their diverse communities and “treat all persons with respect and have due regard for their opinions, beliefs, rights and responsibilities.” The report recommended they should continue with the current practice of reciting the ‘Inclusive Banyule Statement’ at the start of each meeting.

“If the main objective of a prayer is to focus attention on being accountable to others and committing to make decisions in the best interests of all, a nonreligious pledge or commitment statement of good governance would likely be more suitable.”

Written by council officer Gina Burden, Manager Corporate Governance & Communication, the report noted that including prayers in council meetings would raise human rights concerns under the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006, which protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief.

“The subject matter of this report does raise Human Rights implications as a person, particularly councillors or staff, who identify as being of no religion or holding secular beliefs or other non-Christian beliefs, may feel coerced by having to recite a Christian prayer as part of the Council Meeting formalities,” the report said.

The councillor who pushed unsuccessfully for prayers to be reintroduced into the council’s meetings argued that some community members did not want government and religion to be separate.

Councillor Mark Di Pasquale told the July meeting that “religion is all the time” and “we should be praying all the time”.

“I brought (this issue) up once again because there are members of the community who do think that government, or those who are representing the people, should not have separation between religion and or their roles in community,” he said.

Council investigated the matter after Councillor Di Pasquale submitted a notice of motion earlier in the year, asking that the council explore the “possible inclusion of a prayer at the beginning of Ordinary Council Meetings along with the Acknowledgement of Traditional Custodians and Diversity Statement”.

In March, he had argued that the foundation of Australian laws and the Constitution were “grounded in the acknowledgement of a higher being – God”.

In voting to block the push to reintroduce prayer, non-religious councillor, Peter Castaldo, argued that it was important to separate religious matters from council matters, and to continue with the more inclusive practice that had operated since 1997.

“I fully support the recommendation of this report and agree with the old-age wisdom of the separation of church and state. Nobody wants religious beliefs forced upon them,” he said.

In making a case against the introduction of prayers, the report noted the “big shift” in the past decade in Banyule residents identifying as not religious (43 per cent) or ‘other’ (12 per cent) in the Census, and the  “steady decline” in people identifying as Christian.

About 6,400 people have signed a petition calling for parliaments and councils to replace prayer recitals with more inclusive practices.

Help us build momentum for replacing prayers in parliaments and councils with something more inclusive: https://rationalist.com.au/we-stand-with-sue/

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

Photo by Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash

All the more reason.