Chances are that your congregation begins every official council meeting with a religious prayer—and it is almost always a Christian prayer.
About a third of Australian local governments pray, and this figure rises to more than half of congregations in New South Wales and Victoria.
These are just some of the findings presented in my recent article in the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion.
The issue of counsel prayers is highly contentious. Here’s why it’s probably illegal, and why I think councils should stop.
How many councils have official prayers?
It is difficult to find current figures on the number of councils with official prayers, because things change all the time.
But figures from mid-2019 show that counsel prayers are most common in the more populous states.
There are variations in how guesses go about praying. The most common method is for the mayor to lead the council in prayer (88 councils do this, out of 522 councils surveyed). The next most common is a guest preacher leading the council in prayer (55 councils), followed by a council member other than the mayor leading the prayer (28 councils), followed by a council official leading the prayer (19 councils).
For 91% of Australian councils, the prayer is always a Christian prayer. Usually this is because the council has a prescribed prayer that is used every time.
Even if guest preachers are invited, diversity is not the goal. Many congregations only invite Christian guests. One congregation even had a policy of inviting preachers from non-Christian faith groups on the condition that they say a Christian prayer.
The best way to find out if and how your council is praying is to watch the video recording of a recent council meeting. These can be found in the meetings section of your municipality’s website.
A controversial practice
Adelaide City Council is currently considering whether it should stop praying as part of its official meetings.
The Australian Christian lobby is campaigning to persuade Adelaide councilors to hold the prayer. It argues that “prayer reminds people that our democracy is based on Christian truth” and that it “stands up for religious freedom”.
In January, a group of 21 councilors from various Victorian councils wrote a open letter to the state government and human rights commission requesting guidance to councils on the appropriateness of council prayers.
She wrote that some councilors “object to (…) taking part in a religious ritual as part of their role”, that others feel it is unfair and inconsistent with multiculturalism to favor one religion over another favor, and that others consider government agencies to be “neutral on religion”.
Census figures showing that most Australians today are not Christian. About 44% of Australians report being Christian, while 39% report not being religious at all.
Is it even legal?
England’s Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that official prayers in English local councils were unlawful. The Supreme Court pointed out that government agencies such as councils can only do things that are allowed by law.
The Supreme Court ruled that there was no law allowing English councils to hold prayers, meaning that councils with prayers were unlawful. The British Parliament later passed a law expressly allowing councils to pray.
Last year I published an article in the Alternative legal magazine arguing that the logic of the English Supreme Court ruling also applies in Australia. There is no law in any Australian jurisdiction that allows local councils to include religious prayers as part of the official business of council meetings. Indeed, Australian local government legislation emphasizes the importance of equality and councils that respect the diversity of their population.
Australian councils know there are legal risks associated with continuing to include religious prayers as part of their official meetings.
in Queensland, Fraser Coast Regional CouncilThe president of the church told that council in January 2023 that he had received legal advice that their Christian prayer practice may be discriminatory under Queensland’s religious discrimination laws.
Read more: A ‘Christian nation’ no longer: why Australia’s religious right is losing policy battle even if it wins elections
The corporate governance manager of Banyule City Council in Victoria reported to that council in July 2022 that her prayer
raise human rights implications, as a person, especially councilors or staff, who report having no religion or of secular or other non-Christian beliefs may feel compelled by having to say a Christian prayer as part of of council meeting formalities.
And last month, Boroondara council in suburban Melbourne stopped praying during council meetings in response to a legal letter from Maurice Blackburn lawyers representing a non-religious councillor.
Jennifer Kanis of Maurice Blackburn told The Age newspaper that having religious prayers as part of official council meetings was “outside the council’s powers” and also violated Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
A municipality can take this matter to court. But instead of dealing with lawsuits, our elected representatives should simply choose to open their official council meetings with something more inclusive and representative of the entire community.