Victorian councillor hits back at imposed ‘acts of Christian worship’

Si Gladman / 30 May 2021

A Victorian council is imposing “acts of Christian worship” on councillors through the recital of an opening prayer at meetings, says one councillor who is now fighting back.

Councillor Victor Franco has branded his Boroondara Council as being unwelcoming to people of minority faiths and non-religious people like himself because of its practice of opening meetings with a Christian prayer.

At a meeting last Monday, Councillor Franco (pictured) unsuccessfully pushed to remove reference to the prayer from the council’s Governance Rules.

The Governance Rules, which say meetings may begin with “the Council prayer” but do not specify the text of the prayer, are now going out for public consultation until 25 June

The text of the prayer currently used to open meetings was decided separately by councillors. It is an adaptation of a prayer found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and also used in federal parliament.

“Council’s governance rules as proposed try to make it part of the job as councillors to participate in an act of Christian worship. Not all of us are Christian, and Boroondara Council is not a church,” said Councillor Franco in an impassioned speech.

“Council is meant to be an instrument of secular government. We’re here elected on behalf of residents and ratepayers to work for the best of Boroondara, and we’re not here to pray to a particular god.”

In making the case for change, Councillor Franco pointed to a recent peer-reviewed legal analysis published in the Alternative Law Journal that concluded the practice of local councils incorporating prayers into their formal meetings was unlawful.

Kaye Gartner, a Buddhist councillor at the Shoalhaven City Council, has used the same argument as part of her effort to change her council’s practice of opening meetings with exclusively Christian prayers.

Councillor Franco told the meeting that the imposition of prayers sent the wrong message to the diverse community living in the City of Boroondara, located in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

He noted that, in the 2016 Census, 37% of residents in the council area indicated they had no religious affiliation.

“Boroondara council meetings should be inclusive and welcoming for all. With an official prayer, our meetings are not inclusive and they are not welcoming for all,” he said.

“With an official prayer, the majority on Boroondara council says to non-believers on council like me, and to those who belong to non-Christian faiths or faiths with other beliefs, that we are not equal, that our beliefs are less important that theirs and that we are second-class councillors.

“I don’t expect to impose my religious views or non-religious views on anybody else. But it’s expected that it be done here! Why should anyone have to pay such a humiliating price? Why can’t we just treat each other with equal dignity and respect?”

Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator at the Rationalist Society of Australia. You can contact him at sigladman@rationalist.com.au or follow him on Twitter at @si_gladman

All the more reason.