A Labor member of the South Australian parliament has pledged to support the removal of Christian worship practices from the parliament when the matter is raised for debate.
In a boost for an anticipated debate on the issue – expected in the state’s upper house in the current term of parliament – the Labor member told the Rationalist Society of Australia that they support calls to replace the daily prayer rituals with secular and more inclusive practices, and would act at the appropriate time.
Last year, Robert Simms, a Greens member of the Legislative Council, vowed to pursue the issue in the current term of the parliament, urging his colleagues to “watch this space”. However, it is not yet known when he will bring on a motion for debate.
Earlier this month, the RSA wrote to all Labor members of the Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council (see letter below), calling on the party to “lead the way” in making the parliament’s procedures secular and reflective of modern society.
This action followed a letter from Premier Peter Malinauskas’s office in August stating that the Labor government had “no intentions” of changing the Standing Orders that mandate daily Christian worship.
Both chambers of the parliament open each day by asking all in attendance to observe the recital of exclusively Christian prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer, before they can get on with their work.
In her letter to Labor MPs, RSA president Dr Meredith Doig argued that the recent example at the Adelaide City Council highlighted how divisive this issue could be when religious people insisted that prayers be observed as part of government meetings.
Dr Doig noted that the South Australian community was rich in diversity, with people from many different faiths and, increasingly, non-faith backgrounds.
“Even when using a biased question that assumes all respondents have a religion (‘What is the person’s religion?’), the 2021 Census found that the percentage of South Australians identifying as not religious had surged to nearly half the population (46%), while 8% were of non-Christian faith backgrounds,” she said.
“By choosing to impose acts of Christian worship as part of its daily proceedings, the state parliament sends a message to non-religious and non-Christian South Australians that the parliament does not recognise and respect their worldviews, and does not welcome them in an equal way.”
SA Labor appears divided on the issue. One Labor MP wrote back to say that they support keeping the Lord’s Prayer in the parliament.
At least one current Labor member of the Legislative Council is on the public record supporting the removal of prayers from parliament. Ian Hunter, writing in a chapter of the The Australian Book of Atheism (2010), questioned why parliaments enshrined “a practice that divides the community, rather than uniting it”. He wrote:
“The debate about the relevance of parliamentary prayer is not about getting rid of religion by stealth; it is about reflecting the reality of contemporary Australian society.”
“We do not sit in parliament representing only our own personal beliefs – we are the elected representatives of the people. …we are representing a diverse community: a community made up of Christians, of course, but also of believers of other faiths and non-believers.”
Si Gladman is Campaign & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.
Image: Gabriella Clare Marino on Unsplash
Letter to all South Australian Labor MPs, 3 September 2023
I’m writing to all state Labor members of parliament on behalf of the Rationalist Society of Australia, which is Australia’s oldest freethought organisation promoting reason, evidence-based policy and secularism.
Last month, the office of Premier Peter Malinauskas told us that his government had no intention of changing the state parliament’s procedures that mandate daily Christian worship.
We are calling on the Labor Party to lead the way on this issue. We believe South Australia’s public institutions should be inclusive and welcoming of all people. The parliament’s procedures should be secular – in that they should not privilege a particular religion – and they should be reflective of modern society.
The recent example at the Adelaide City Council highlights how divisive this issue can be when religious people want to insist that prayers be observed as part of government meetings.
The South Australian community is rich in diversity, with people from many different faith and non-faith backgrounds. But, increasingly, South Australians are abandoning religion. Even when using a biased question that assumes all respondents have a religion (“What is the person’s religion?”), the 2021 Census found that the percentage of South Australians identifying as not religious had surged to nearly half the population (46%), while 8% were of non-Christian faith backgrounds.
By choosing to impose acts of Christian worship as part of its daily proceedings, the state parliament sends a message to non-religious and non-Christian South Australians that the parliament does not recognise and respect their worldviews, and does not welcome them in an equal way.
We believe the South Australian Parliament has an opportunity to lead the rest of the country. While momentum for change is building at the level of local councils – with a large number of councils having recently replaced prayer rituals with secular and more inclusive practices – chambers of state parliaments and the federal parliament continue to mandate exclusively daily Christian worship. (Although we note that the Victorian government has pledged to replace Christian prayers with a new model that would be “purpose-built” for that state).
We also note that a 2022 poll by the Australia Institute found that 63% of South Australians support removing the Christian prayer and replacing it with a minute of silent reflection.
Supporting multiculturalism is in the DNA of most Labor people. At the last election, Premier Malinauskas talked about the “diverse culture that is modern South Australia” in the party’s policy platform. We note, too, that the government’s vision for multiculturalism in South Australia is:
“…to achieve an open, inclusive, cohesive and equitable multicultural society, where cultural, linguistic and religious diversity is understood, valued and supported.”
Currently, by mandating Christian worship each day, the standing orders for the houses of parliament fail to respect the demographics of the state’s religious and non-religious diversity, and fail to promote an inclusive and welcoming society for all.
We urge the Labor Party to take action on this issue.
Dr Meredith Doig,
Rationalist Society of Australia