The Rationalist Society of Australia is urging citizens of the Boroondara community and pro-secular Australians to show their support for Councillor Victor Franco by making submissions to a public consultation on the issue of prayers in council meetings.
Until 5pm on Tuesday 20 June, Boroondara City Council is accepting public feedback on rule 18A of its Governance Rules – which relate to the council’s prayer ritual at the opening of meetings.
The process gives Councillor Franco (pictured) hope that he can soon find closure on his long-running battle to replace the exclusionary prayer ritual with secular and more inclusive practices.
Boroondara council has instigated the public consultation after receiving a letter from lawyers acting pro bono for Councillor Franco that cited concerns about human rights and the potential illegalities of including prayer rituals in the Governance Rules.
At a meeting in February, Boroondara council decided to pause the practice of reciting prayers and hold a community engagement process to “enable a final decision” on whether prayers would remain as part of the Governance Rules.
Boroondara council previously held a public consultation on the issue in 2021, but chose to ignore the community’s overwhelming desire to replace the prayer rituals with something more inclusive of the community.
Since early 2021, the RSA has documented Councillor Franco’s efforts to have “acts of Christian worship” removed from formal meetings (see the timeline below).
RSA president Meredith Doig is encouraging residents of Boroondara to again show their support for Councillor Franco, an atheist.
“Victor has bravely taken on this fight. We hope that the community in Boroondara and Australians who support secularism will again get behind him,” she said.
The public consultation is also open to people and groups who live outside the Boroondara local government area.
The RSA also encourages people to share their views in emails to all councillors (you can find their email addresses here).
Some tips for your submission
In providing your feedback to Boroondara council, you may want to consider some of the following arguments.
- The recital of prayers at the opening of council meetings is exclusionary of non-religious people and people of minority faiths. The inclusion of a Christian prayer in formal proceedings means some elected councillors, staff members, and members of the public who do not belong to the officially favoured religion are made to feel unwelcome and excluded – their beliefs unrecognised and demeaned.
- The practice does not reflect the diversity of the Boroondara community. According to the 2021 Census, 45 per cent of the Boroondara population now identifies as having ‘no religion’ – and that does not even include those who identify as ‘atheist’, ‘secular’ or ‘agnostic’. Also, a significant proportion identify with non-Christian faiths.
- There should be separation between the institutions of religion and the institutions of the state. The public sphere should be one in which religions may contribute but not dominate.
- In a democratic society, freedom of belief should be absolute but the freedom to manifest belief is necessarily limited by the freedom of others to be free of the imposition of beliefs they do not subscribe to. There should be freedom to practise one’s faith or belief – as long as doing so does not harm others or impinge on their rights.
- There should be equality between religious and non-religious worldviews, so that any particular worldview does not put its adherents at any particular advantage or afford it any particular disadvantage.
- While Rule 18A says meetings “may commence” with prayer “at the discretion of the chairperson”, in practice the council has always begun meetings with prayer since the council’s inception in 1996 and blocked attempts to remove the prayer.
- While the council’s website argues that the practice of reciting prayers is “consistent with practices applied by other councils, the state and Commonwealth governments”, this is no longer true. An increasing number of councils across Victoria and Australia have been removing prayer rituals from the meetings. The state government has also pledged to remove prayers from the parliament.
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: The public consultation period opens for people to complete a survey or make submissions by Tuesday 20 June.