The Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA) has today urged the South Australian Premier and the state parliament to “lead the way” in making the state’s institutions more inclusive and reflective of modern society by removing exclusionary prayer rituals.
In a letter (see below) to Premier Peter Malinauskas, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly Dan Cregan and President of the Legislative Council Terry Stephens, the RSA said the ongoing controversy at Adelaide City Council over the prayer demonstrated the divisive nature of the issue.
Earlier this week, Adelaide councillor Henry Davis again disrupted formal proceedings of council by reciting aloud Christian prayers during the moment of silent reflection at the opening of a meeting. It left Lord Mayor Jane Lomax-Smith little option but to temporarily expel him.
RSA president Meredith Doig urged the Premier and the parliament’s presiding officers to lead by example on the issue and replace exclusionary daily prayer rituals with more welcoming and inclusive practices.
She said the parliament risked looking “out of touch” with the community it serves if it did not act.
Although 46 per cent of South Australians identified as having ‘no religion’ at the 2021 Census, and eight per cent affiliated with a non-Christian religion, both the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council begin each day by asking all in attendance to observe Christian prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer.
“By continuing to observe exclusively Christian prayers each day, the state parliament sends a message to these non-religious people and people of other faiths that the South Australian Parliament does not recognise and respect their worldviews but rather preferences one worldview over all others,” wrote Dr Doig.
“The South Australian Parliament, of all places, should be secular and welcoming to all people. Your parliament has an opportunity to lead the way and become an example of a welcoming, inclusive, modern, and secular government institution. Ignoring this issue only makes the parliament look out of touch with over half the SA population.”
Last year, Speaker Cregan told the Rationalist Society of Australia that there were “no present plans” to amend the chamber’s Standing Orders to remove prayers.
In early November, upper house member Robert Simms said there was a growing “mood for change” across the country as he announced he would pursue the issue in the current term of parliament.
In her letter today, Dr Doig noted that the Labor government in Victoria had pledged to replace Christian prayers with a new model that would be “purpose-built” for Victoria.
Since April, when the Adelaide council removed the practice of councillors being asked to recite aloud Christian prayers at the opening of its meeting, Councillor Davis has disrupted proceedings by reciting Christian prayers aloud while other councillors observed the moment of silence.
Last month, Lord Mayor Lomax-Smith combined the reflection with a moment of silent observance for service men and women. Although Councillor Davis stayed silent on the first instance last month, on Tuesday night this week he escalated the situation by again reciting aloud prayers – and was applauded for doing so by a public gallery stacked with Christians.
Earlier this year, the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) orchestrated a campaign that called on the Adelaide City Council to retain the prayer ritual, even though 51.6 per cent of the population in that local government area said they had no religion at the 2021 Census.
In past years, the ACL has lobbied state and local governments to retain acts of Christian worship by arguing that the majority of the Australia population was – at the time – Christian.
In 2020, the ACL’s Wendy Francis launched campaigns urging the Queensland Parliament and the Brisbane City Council to retain prayers as part of their formal proceedings. In the petition on the Queensland Parliament website in September 2020, she said: “The majority of Australians chose to identify as Christian in the most recent census.” On the ACL’s website in August 2020, Ms Francis argued that: “The most recent census  showed that, once again, the majority of Australians choose to identify as Christian.”
At the 2021 Census, however, Christianity fell to just 43.9 per cent – down from 52 per cent at the 2016 Census and 68 per cent at the 2001 Census.
Image: Peter Malinauskas (Facebook)
Letter to Premier Malinauskas, and Speaker and President of the South Australian Parliament, 11 August 2023
Dear Premier, Mr Speaker and Mr President,
I’m writing on behalf of the Rationalist Society of Australia, which is Australia’s oldest freethought organisation promoting reason, evidence-based policy and secularism.
The ongoing controversy at the Adelaide City Council over the recital of Christian prayers highlights the highly divisive nature of the practice of reciting prayers as part of formal government meetings.
The South Australian community is rich in diversity, with people from all kinds of faith and non-faith backgrounds. At the 2021 Census, the percentage of South Australians identifying as not religious surged to 46%, while 8% were of non-Christian faith backgrounds.
Despite this, the South Australian Parliament continues to impose acts of Christian worship as part of its daily proceedings. By continuing to observe exclusively Christian prayers each day, the state parliament sends a message to these non-religious people and people of other faiths that the South Australian Parliament does not recognise and respect their worldviews but rather preferences one worldview over all others.
The South Australian Parliament, of all places, should be secular and welcoming to all people. Your parliament has an opportunity to lead the way and become an example of a welcoming, inclusive, modern, and secular government institution. Ignoring this issue only makes the parliament look out of touch with over half the SA population.
There is a mood for change across the country, with many councils and parliaments removing prayer rituals or considering doing so. The Labor government in Victoria has pledged to replace Christian prayers with a new model that would be “purpose-built” for Victoria. Also, nearly 40 councillors have signed a joint letter to the state government and the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner opposing the practice of prayers in government meetings.
In the South Australian Legislative Council, Robert Simms has said he would be pursuing the issue in the current term of parliament, and there is a high level of public support for change. Recent research by public policy think tank The Australia Institute shows that about two-thirds of South Australian voters (63%) support the removal of prayers from parliament.
Mr Premier, Mr Speaker and Mr President, will you commit both houses of the South Australian Parliament to modernise their parliamentary procedures by replacing daily Christian worship with more inclusive, secular and welcoming practices during the current parliamentary term?
I look forward to your considered response to this timely issue.
Dr Meredith Doig,
President, Rationalist Society of Australia