Gone Almighty: Council halts Christian prayer after legal warning

A Melbourne council has paused the use of a Christian prayer asking God to direct it after receiving a legal letter stating its inclusion in council processes was unlawful.

An urgent business motion was passed by the City of Boroondara last week to amend governance rules to remove reference to the prayer, which asks God to “direct and prosper [council’s] deliberations to the advancement of your glory and the true welfare of the people”.

Last week, the Christian prayer that traditionally opened Boroondara council meetings was not used for the first time since the council formed in 1996.

Jennifer Kanis, social justice principal at Maurice Blackburn lawyers, wrote to the council this year, advising that the inclusion of the prayer was unlawful under the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.

The prayer also has no connection to the decision-making process of council and “it is therefore beyond the powers given to council by the government to have a rule that requires that”, she told The Age.

“It is unlawful in that the charter requires that people have equal and effective protection against discrimination, people have freedom of thought, religion, belief and opportunity and that every person should have that right and opportunity, without discrimination, to participate in the conduct of public affairs.”

Kanis, who acted pro bono for Boroondara councillor Victor Franco, has not examined the ways in which prayers are written into governance at the estimated 38 Victorian councils still opening with Christian prayers, but said their use was also potentially unlawful.

Boroondara, which covers the inner east municipalities of Camberwell, Hawthorn and Kew, has included prayer in council meetings since 1996.

Last week’s meeting marked the first time it had been dropped for a meeting. Mayor Felicity Sinfield has previously supported its retention.

Franco has previously been formally censured by council for making public comments about the prayer.

He said he felt under “very real pressure” to participate in it at each council meeting.

“I’m not religious, my family’s not religious … [but] over the past 2½years, I’ve been required to participate in religious rituals at the city of Boroondara,” Franco said.

“It is an established practice that makes everyone present, including staff, management and members of the community feel obliged to participate.”

Franco said the use of a single faith’s prayer excluded those of other faiths and those with none.

“Having prayer shows we are not equal, and our beliefs are less equal,” he said. “Why should anyone have to pay such a human dignity price, why can’t we just treat each other with equal dignity and respect?”

The Andrews government has promised to discontinue the Lord’s Prayer as part of the opening of parliamentary sittings.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Last month, 21 state councillors wrote to the state government calling for guidelines to end Christian prayers in local council meetings, arguing widespread use of one faith’s prayers was “inconsistent with the multicultural and multi-faith diversity of the communities the council represents”.

Before last year’s election, the Andrews government vowed to axe the tradition of reciting the Lord’s Prayer in state parliament if re-elected. The prayer has been used on sitting days since 1918.

A City of Boroondara spokesman said in a statement that the council prayer was “to remind councillors of their obligation to act in the best interests of the community” and was introduced to create a shared commitment.

Council will start community consultation to determine if the option to read the prayer at meetings should be removed from the governance rules.

“Some councillors from across the local government sector have pointed out that prayers are inconsistent with a changing community in which many people no longer identify as being affiliated with a religion and have the right to be free from any statement with religious references,” the statement said.

Kanis said that statement appeared to contradict the motion passed last week.

“If you look at the clear words to the motion proposing an amendment to remove reference to the council prayer, it is a positive proposal to amend governance rules to remove it,” she said.

But the Local Government Act does require council to go through a consultation process.

The Victorian Local Governance Association has been contacted for comment.

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