This is our submission to the Boroondara City Council in Victoria, emailed to the council’s Manager of Governance and Legal on 20 June 2021, in regards to the practice of reciting Christian prayers at the opening of each council meeting:
The Rationalist Society is Australia’s oldest freethought group, promoting the use of evidence and reason in public policy since 1906. The RSA bases its policies on universal human values, shared by most religious and non-religious people. We support the democratic ideals of freedom of the individual, equality before the law, and a secular society that neither privileges nor discriminates against people because of their religion or belief.
The RSA calls on Boroondara Council to do the right thing and remove the exclusionary practice of starting each council meeting with a Christian prayer.
Council meetings should be inclusive and welcoming for everyone. Councils should not have favourite religions.
When it comes to the place of religion in a pluralist, democratic society like ours, there are certain principles that should be honoured:
Firstly, there should be freedom to practise one’s faith or belief – as long as doing so does not harm others or impinge on their rights; and there should be freedom to change one’s faith or to leave it altogether without fear of condemnation or harm.
Second, there should be equality between religious and non-religious worldviews, so that any particular worldview does not put its adherents at any particular advantage, nor any particular disadvantage.
And third, there should be separation between the institutions of religion and the institutions of the state. The public sphere should be one in which religions may contribute but not dominate.
Insisting on the recitation of a prayer clearly identifiable with one particular faith at the start of Council meetings clearly offends the second and third of these principles, and even the first.
In a democratic society, freedom of belief may be absolute but the freedom to manifest belief is necessarily limited by the freedom of others to be free of the imposition of beliefs they do not subscribe to.
The inclusion of a Christian prayer in formal proceedings means some elected councillors, staff members, and members of the public who do not belong to the officially favoured religion are made to feel unwelcome and excluded – their beliefs unrecognised and demeaned.
Boroondara Council is supposed to represent and serve all members of the Boroondara community. No one should be made to feel like they don’t belong in Boroondara just because of their religious or non-religious beliefs.
The Boroondara community is diverse and made up of people who adhere to a variety of religious belief systems. There is also a rapidly increasing number of Australians who are self-identifying as having no religion.
The imposition of a compulsory religious ritual is discriminatory against people of other faiths and people who are not religious. As Councillor Victor Franco said at a recent Council meeting, Boroondara Council is not a church. As a governmental institution, Boroondara Council should not have religious rituals as part of its official meetings. Councils should focus on “roads, rates and rubbish” – not religion.
As part of a democratic society, Boroondara Council should replace its official prayer with a more inclusive and welcoming opening for its Council meetings.
We would be grateful if we could elaborate on this submission at a Services Delegated Committee meeting.
Dr Meredith Doig
President, Rationalist Society of Australia
Image: City of Boroondara (Facebook)