RSA raises discrimination concerns with Redland Council CEO over prayer practice

Si Gladman / 15 February 2023

The Rationalist Society of Australia has questioned the Chief Executive of Redland City Council in Queensland as to whether the council’s practice of opening meetings with up to 10 minutes of exclusively Christian worship is discriminatory.

Earlier this month, RSA president Dr Meredith Doig wrote to Andrew Chesterman to ask if he had sought legal advice as to whether the Redland City Council’s practice of inviting only Christians to partake in this section of council meetings was discriminatory under Queensland law.

In the letter, Dr Doig noted the comments by Fraser Coast Regional Council’s Chief Executive Officer Ken Diehm during discussion of the prayer issue at a Fraser Coast Regional Council meeting in January.

Mr Diehm told Fraser Coast councillors that the council’s custom of allowing only Christian clergy to say the prayer was “likely discriminatory” under Queensland’s anti-discrimination and human rights laws. He also said he was ethically and legally bound to ensure council processes do not discriminate.

“These comments are of consequence for the Redland City Council, which also has the practice of inviting only Christian community figures to recite prayers and lead acts of worship as part of the council’s Devotional Segment at the beginning of meetings,” Dr Doig told Mr Chesterman.

“We believe the practice of Redland City Council is religious-based discrimination in that it unfairly excludes non-religious and non-Christian citizens from taking part in the full proceedings of council meetings.”

Redland City Council’s Standing Orders provide for “an invited person [to lead] the local government in a brief devotional segment”. Yet in practice, the council limits this part of proceedings exclusively to Christian ministers.

Dr Doig informed Mr Chesterman that the RSA had asked the Queensland Human Rights Commission to investigate this breach of anti-discrimination laws.

She also pointed to legal analysis by Professor Luke Beck, of Monash University Faculty of Law, that concluded that the practice of councils incorporating prayers into their formal meetings was unlawful.

“The Redland City Council area is rich in diversity, made up of people from multiple faith backgrounds and, increasingly, non-faith backgrounds. Meetings of the Redland City Council should be secular and welcoming of all people. In privileging one religious worldview, the Redland City Council sends a message that significant sections of its community are not welcome,” wrote Dr Doig.

Last year, the RSA wrote to Redland City councillors to raise concerns about the Christian ‘devotional segment’ that lasts typically for about five minutes but can go as long as 10 minutes. At the January meeting, a Christian preacher led a session of sermon and prayer for eight and a half minutes.

The push to replace prayers with more secular and inclusive practices in councils and parliaments continues to gather momentum across the country, with at least two more councils deciding to act on the issue in recent weeks. 

The RSA understands that the Gympie Regional Council in Queensland and the Glenorchy Council in Tasmania have this year decided to remove prayers.

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Photo by Matheus Ferrero (Unsplash)

All the more reason.