Religious freedom at stake as Buddhist councillor inquires into legality of Christian-only prayer ritual

Si Gladman / 20 May 2021

A councillor who was blocked from reciting a Buddhist prayer to open her local council meeting has launched a new bid to have the decision overturned.

Kaye Gartner, a member of the Shoalhaven City Council, located on the New South Wales south coast, has placed on the agenda of the next ordinary meeting a motion for the council to seek formal legal advice on the lawfulness of having an opening Christian prayer as part of its meetings.

The next meet is scheduled for Tuesday 25 May.

Councillor Gartner (pictured) has also submitted a letter of complaint to the mayor and chief executive officer alleging religious-based discrimination for the incident that occurred at the meeting on 22 September last year.

During that meeting, she was reciting a Buddhist prayer to open the proceedings when one councillor interjected and said that the opening prayer had to be a Christian one.

Later in the meeting, a majority of councillors voted to mandate that only a Christian prayer could be recited.

In her notice of motion for next week’s council meeting, Councillor Gartner notes that recent peer-reviewed legal analysis by Associate Professor Luke Beck and published in the Alternative Law Journal concludes that “the practice of many Australian local councils of incorporating prayers into their formal meetings is unlawful.”

The constitutional law expert from Monash University wrote that case law in the United Kingdom held that local councils did not have power to commence their meetings with prayer and the same reasoning would apply with equal force in Australia.

In an interview with the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA), Councillor Gartner said she was hopeful her fellow councillors would support the motion.

“It’s a powerful notice of motion. It’s a powerful article. I’m hoping that anyone who has it brought to their attention that this is a significant and legal issue around how a council should be behaving for all councillors. So I’m hoping that will be enough to have council’s support for the notice of motion to pursue the legal advice,” she said.

“I know that I can expect the support of some – absolutely – because a lot of people were outraged about what happened on that meeting night where I was interrupted. Many of my colleagues have expressed their support for me having said that prayer. They valued the prayer and what it had to contribute. But not the majority! So I will have a bit of work to do to invite more councillors to support it. I need seven out of 13. 

“I will be pointing out to them that the Local Government Act requires that we have an inclusive environment, that councillors do not feel excluded, and that we now have an agenda that is exclusive.”

Councillor Gartner was “shocked” and “humiliated” to be stopped midway through reciting the Buddhist prayer and to then have exclusively Christian prayers imposed.

She said she was determined to continue pushing for a more inclusive opening ritual to better reflect the diversity of the citizens in the Shoalhaven council area.

“We have a diverse community. In the…weeks that COVID restrictions have been lifted, we have begun to have our citizenship ceremonies again. A good 75-80% of those people are from India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Fijian Indians. They are not necessarily Christian. They are paying rates in our community, they want to be part of our community and they want to be able to represent their community to our council, and yet they are now faced with, ‘This is an exclusively Christian place’,” she said.

“I don’t mind standing for Christian prayer. But I do mind that there is never anything else other than a Christian prayer. If we’re going to have prayer, then we need to have all prayers welcome.” 

The RSA believes local governments and state and national parliaments should adopt inclusive rituals that are welcoming of all people, regardless of their religious or non-religious beliefs

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

All the more reason.