This is our submission to the Boroondara City Council in Victoria, as part of the council’s public consultation on its Governance Rules and the practice of opening meetings with prayers. Submissions close Tuesday 20 June.
I’m making this submission regarding Rule 18A at Boroondara City Council on behalf of the Rationalist Society of Australia (RSA), Australia’s oldest freethought organisation promoting reason, secularism and evidence-based policy.
The RSA urges the Boroondara council to replace the opening prayer ritual with a secular practice that is more welcoming and inclusive of the people who live in 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 identifying as ‘atheist’, ‘secular’ or ‘agnostic’ in the Census. At the next Census in 2026, the gap between the non-religious proportion of the community and Christians will only widen.
Further, the Boroondara council area is home to people from a diverse range of faith traditions, with a significant proportion identifying with non-Christian religions in the Census.
Every Australian has a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – as per Article 18(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and as per the Victorian Human Rights Charter. In 2018, the Ruddock inquiry into religious freedom in Australia emphasised that such freedom of thought, conscience and religion was “a right enjoyed by all, not just those of faith”, and protects “those who live a life of faith and those who live by other beliefs or, indeed, no beliefs” (emphasis added).
The Boroondara council’s practice of indulging in Christian worship at the opening of council meetings fails to respect the worldviews of non-religious people and people of minority faiths. This can have the effect of some councillors, staff members, and members of the public who do not belong to the council’s officially favoured religion feeling unwelcome and excluded – their beliefs unrecognised and diminished.
The Boroondara council should embrace genuinely secular governance to ensure that all people are treated fairly, regardless of their religious or non-religious worldview. Genuine secularism means institutions of church and state should be separated, that people are free to follow a faith or not (as long as doing so does not impinge on the rights of others), and that no-one is disadvantaged – or privileged – because of their religious or non-religious worldview.
While the council’s Rule 18A says meetings “may commence” with prayer “at the discretion of the chairperson”, in practice the council has, since its inception in 1996, always begun meetings with prayer, and has continued to block attempts to replace the prayer with more modern and inclusive practices.
The council’s website argues that the practice of reciting prayers is “consistent with practices applied by other councils, the state and Commonwealth governments”, but this is no longer true.
An increasing number of councils across Victoria and Australia have been removing the practice of Christian worship from their meetings. The Victorian state government has pledged to remove prayers from the parliament in its current term. Momentum is building across the country for other state parliaments, and the federal parliament, to replace prayers with secular, more inclusive practices that reflect the real diversity and multicultural nature of the communities they serve. Elected representatives in those institutions have called for the removal of prayers – including the current President of the Senate, Labor Senator Sue Lines.
We urge the Boroondara council to do the right thing by its community on this matter and resolve to update its practices to respect all worldviews equally.
Dr Meredith Doig
President, Rationalist Society of Australia