A rural Victorian council will continue to require observance of Christian worship in its meetings despite pleas from one councillor for the local government to make its practices more inclusive and welcoming, and stop giving preferential treatment to one religion.
At the Rural City of Wangaratta meeting last week, a number of councillors defended the recital of prayers at the opening of meetings as a “long-standing tradition”, as the council voted overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the practice.
The sole voice calling for change was that of Councillor Jack Herry, who moved a motion that called for the practice to cease and for the council to better reflect Wangaratta’s diverse community.
Councillor Herry noted that a number of councils had, in recent years, removed religious worship from their meetings, including following legal advice that including prayers was likely unlawful.
“The inclusion of the opening prayer in council meetings is inappropriate on a number of grounds. I feel that the government of a diverse community is best served by leaving religion out of its formal proceedings. I feel that removal of this religious observance practice would be the most neutral path to take going forward,” he said.
“While I acknowledge the opening prayer is a long-standing tradition, I do not believe that just because something is long-standing it is beyond review and having its appropriateness raised as a point of debate.
“First, by reciting the religious prayer, it mixes religion and government in a formal way. I don’t think that’s appropriate. I think that’s an issue. Second, it gives favour to a single religion, thereby losing a neutral approach to religion. I think that’s an issue. And, finally, the practice is not supported by any particular legislation or regulation.”
Councillor Irene Grant, who supported retaining the prayer, argued, among other things, that removing prayers would be “pandering to a minority” and could be the beginning of unravelling other traditions such as Christmas, Easter and Anzac Day.
The proportion of the population identifying as not religious is expected to overtake that identifying as Christian in the council area at the 2026 Census. According to the 2021 Census figures, 48 per cent of citizens identified as Christian, while 42 per cent said they were not religious or secular. Compared to the 2016 Census, Christianity had plunged 10 per cent, while no religion had gained 12 per cent.
In speaking to his motion, Councillor Herry said the make-up of the Wangaratta community had fundamentally changed since the practice of reciting prayer was introduced, and argued that council practices needed to reflect this.
“As our community grows increasingly diverse, we need to constantly reflect upon our governance practices and formalities to ensure that those practices and formalities reflect the diversity of the community and don’t pose as potential barriers for participation,” he said.
“The advantages of this proposal are that it will create a more diverse and universally welcoming space, and the proceedings for our decision-making forum here will be more inviting to a broader diverse community.
“It will do that by not demonstrating that preferential treatment for just one religion. We won’t be asking people or requiring people to participate in religious observance by entering this forum, and we also won’t be putting it upon individuals and others to take convoluted approaches to avoiding participating in those religious observance practices.”
Following a legal threat, the Boroondara City Council in Victoria decided in late October to remove its prayer rituals. Earlier this year, Maurice Blackburn lawyers sent a letter advising the council that the inclusion of the prayer was unlawful, arguing that requiring it went beyond the powers given to the council and that the practice was incompatible with the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
The Rationalist Society of Australia is actively lobbying and advocating for prayer rituals to be replaced with more appropriate practices in councils and parliaments. See the latest updates here.
Si Gladman is Campaign & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.
Image: Cr Jack Herry, Rural City of Wangaratta (Facebook)