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Local leaders in Victoria (Australia) want to end Christian prayers at meetings
21 councillors are asking state officials for guidance on getting rid of Christian invocations
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In today’s edition of Why Can’t My Elected Officials Be More Like That?, a coalition of 21 council members across the state of Victoria, in Australia, sent a letter to the state government urging leaders to issue guidance regarding Christian invocation prayers at their meetings. The prayers have become more controversial in recent years as people (including some elected officials) have drifted away from organized religion.
The councillors say that the invocation tradition has become far more exclusionary than welcoming. Rather than allowing invocations to continue creating controversy, they want a recommendation from above.
In the state's south-west, Moyne Shire Councillor Jordan Lockett signed the letter and said his view was that council should promote inclusion.
"There's a big shift in the country, 'no religion' is 38.9 per cent of the population, and that population isn't being represented," he said.
Cr Lockett was one of two councillors who voted to scrap the prayer in 2020, following the lead of other inner-city councils.
"There needs to be a standardisation across all councils, I think that's what the attempt is here, to say the state government should enforce the Act across all the shires and councils," he said.
It’s not an unfair request by any means. They’re simply asking for permission to deviate from tradition, because that’s the best way to represent their communities, which is something they’re required by law to do.
The Local Government Act of 2020 says that “Councils are constituted as representative bodies that are accountable, transparent, collaborative, efficient and engaged with their communities.” To push Christianity on citizens as if it’s the default faith violates both the idea that the councils are “representative” and that they can truly be “collaborative.”
Ditching the prayers, then, would be a better reflection of their communities.
Open Letter to the Premier, Minister for Local Government, Minister for Multicultural Affairs, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commissioner, the CEO and Board of the Municipal Association of Victoria, and the CEO and Board of the Victorian Local Governance Association
31st January 2023
Dear Premier, Ministers, Commissioner, and CEO and Board members of the MAV and of the VLGA
We write as elected Councillors in our individual capacities about the widespread practice of Victorian Councils including religious prayers as an official part of Council meetings.
These practices are a matter of some controversy. Some Councillors object to being compelled by their Council's governance rules to participate in a religious ritual as part of their role. Freedom of religion necessarily includes freedom from religion. Some Councillors take exception to their Council having an official prayer derived from the traditions of a single religion, pointing out that this is inconsistent with the multicultural and multi-faith diversity of the communities the council represents. The practice excludes the non-religious and adherents of minority faiths. Some Councillors oppose as a matter of principle government organs such as councils being anything other than neutral in matters of religion.
We also note that doubts have been expressed in recent peer-reviewed legal research as to whether the practice of council prayers is consistent with the Local Government Act 2020.
In the interests of fairness to all in our multicultural and multi-faith communities, we ask that you develop and issue (or cause or advocate for development and issue of) a good practice guideline or direction or advice to Councils, as appropriate to your responsibilities and role, regarding the openings for Council meetings.
Some councils have already gotten rid of the invocations but that didn’t happen without pushback. That’s where the requested guidance would be helpful. Victoria doesn’t require councils to say a prayer at meetings, but by not addressing the matter at all, everyone is stuck creating their own rules.
Even when prayer has been nixed, its defenders are using the same arguments that Christian Nationalists use in the United States:
In the state's north-west, six of nine Mildura Rural City Councillors voted in favour of removing the prayer to God from council meetings in September 2022.
Councillor Glenn Milne was one of the three who defended the prayer.
He said the letter seeking religion be taken out of council affairs was not reflective of local values.
“When you look at the very early beginnings of Mildura the first thing they built were the churches on Deakin avenue and they’re some of the oldest buildings,” he said.
“It doesn’t hurt people to accept there are Christian people in our community.”
Cr Milne said Christian morals were “probably” the most commonly held values in Mildura.
“Most of our laws are based on Christian values anyway,” he said.
Christianity has been around for a long time.
Religious neutrality would oppress Christians.
Our laws are based on the Bible!
Besides that last one being factually untrue, the others are just horrible arguments for perpetuating a tradition that has outlived its usefulness. Christian officials who want to pray are welcome to do it whenever they want—in private. Wasting meeting time with a specifically Christian invocation, however, is a form of privilege these councils are better off eliminating.
If the goal is to reflect the people they serve, no Establishment Clause is needed. All these councillors have to do is leave their personal beliefs out of their government work. They represent their constituents and it’s never a good sign when politicians use their power to promote their own beliefs instead of acting as a voice for the people they serve.
The fact that a handful of the people signing the letter are openly Christian, yet believe in the principle of church/state separation, is a welcome sign that even many religious councillors would be perfectly fine keeping their faith to themselves.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Tom for the link)