Council set to investigate legality of imposing Christian-only prayer

Si Gladman / 27 May 2021

A New South Wales council will investigate the legality of opening its formal meetings with Christian prayers after complaints from a Buddhist councillor that the practice is discriminatory and unlawful.

The Shoalhaven City Council on Tuesday night voted 6-5 in favour of Councillor Kaye Gartner’s motion calling for the local government to seek formal legal advice on the council’s practice of opening meetings with exclusively Christian prayer.

Last year, Councillor Gartner was “shocked” and “humiliated” when she was interrupted while reciting a Buddhist prayer to open a meeting and when the council ruled that only Christian prayers could be read.

Following Tuesday night’s vote, Councillor Gartner (pictured) told the Rationalist Society of Australia that she was “delighted with the result” and was looking forward to seeing the legal advice.

However, some councillors who wish to keep the Christian prayer ritual have already submitted a rescission motion to have the decision overturned at next month’s ordinary council meeting, set for June 29.

Councillor Gartner is calling for community support, as she expects a tough fight ahead. 

“It is challenging for us all to come to terms with change, particularly cultural change,” she told the RSA.

“Our society has changed. We can no longer assume that our communities want religious rituals that privilege a particular belief system when so many amongst us choose no religion at all.”

As part of her motion, Councillor Gartner said that recent peer-reviewed legal analysis concluded that “the practice of many Australian local councils of incorporating prayers into their formal meetings is unlawful.”

In speaking on the motion on Tuesday night, she also pointed to the New South Wales’ Local Government Act to argue that imposing one particular prayer was in contrast to the need for councils to operate in an inclusive manner.

She also urged her fellow councillors to respect the diversity of the community, which she was increasingly becoming non-religious.

“What we know from the 2016 Census [is] that a full 30% of Australian people have no religious affiliation,” she said.

“And this is increasing all the time. When we have the 2021 Census, we’ll find that even more people choose not to profess their commitment to life through religious affiliation.

“So, immediately, the item on the agenda is discriminatory to people who have no religious affiliation. They do not want to be present to prayer. They are not included in prayer and they are certainly not included in Christian prayer.”

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

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