In a nation that is increasingly secular, religion still plays a vital role in the way we run our country. In this series, we examine the role of religion in Australian politics and education.
Each sitting day in federal parliament begins with the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate leading prayers.
But sectarian official prayers are inconsistent with the religious diversity of the Australian community MPs are elected to represent. They are also open to challenge in the High Court for breaching the Constitution’s separation of religion and state provision.
The prayers were introduced shortly after Federation in response to a voracious petition campaign organised by Protestant church leaders.
The first prayer is the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer, which includes the line:
… for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.
The second prayer calls on God:
… to direct and prosper the work of Thy servants to the advancement of Thy glory, and to the true welfare of the people of Australia.
This prayer is a modified version of “A prayer for the High Court of Parliament” from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer.
Australia’s federal MPs are apparently servants of the Christian God, working for his glory.
Inconsistent with religious diversity
Australia is a religiously diverse and multicultural nation. It is inconsistent with that diversity for federal parliament to have official prayers based on one particular religious denomination.
This is especially so, since that particular religious denomination is a minority one. The 2016 census showed 30% of Australians have no religion; 22% are Catholic. Only 13.3% of Australians report being Anglican.
Federal parliament should not officially endorse or sponsor particular religious denominations or beliefs. Doing so sends a message to non-adherents of the favoured religious denomination that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community. Federal parliament should not play favourites among religious denominations or between religious citizens and non-religious citizens.
I recently appeared before a federal parliamentary inquiry looking at religious freedom in Australia and suggested that the committee recommend official prayers in parliament be abolished. Committee member and Labor MP Sharon Claydon responded by suggesting that abolishing parliamentary prayers might be politically difficult.
May be unconstitutional
Official prayers in parliament may also be unconstitutional.
The Constitution prohibits laws for imposing religious observances. Yet parliament’s standing orders force people to participate in religious practices.
Prayers are a type of a religious observance, and it is compulsory for the president and the speaker to recite the parliamentary prayers. This also affects everyone else in the chambers and public galleries.
The constitutional issue was briefly considered when prayers were introduced into federal parliament. But a majority of politicians took the view that standing orders are not laws and so are not subject to the constitutional prohibition on religious observances.
Not all MPs agreed. Labor senator Gregor McGregor asked:
What did the framers of the Constitution mean? Did they mean that the parliament was not to impose religious observances in the streets or in the schools? Did they mean that parliament was not to impose religious observances anywhere else but here?
The High Court has never ruled on this issue. A classic text on the law and usages of the British parliament describes standing orders as a species of law. So, the standing orders might well fit the description of laws for imposing religious observances.
Australia’s Constitution also prohibits religious tests for holding a federal public office. This prohibition applies generally, and is not limited to laws imposing religious tests.
The standing orders make it the job of the president and the speaker to participate in religious activities. A person has to be willing to participate in particular religious activities if they want to take on either role. This looks rather like a religious test for a federal public office.
A person affected by the compulsory parliamentary prayers could go to the High Court and argue the prayers are unconstitutional. Certainly a federal MP would have standing to bring a challenge. They are affected, since they have to participate or acquiesce in the prayers, or else limit their attendance in the chamber for the duration of the prayers.
An ordinary member of the public might also be able to bring a challenge. Courts in Canada and the US accept that official prayers held by legislative bodies affect members of the public who come to sit in the public gallery. Canadian courts even accept that official prayers may deter people from running for public office.
There is no good reason for federal parliament to have official prayers.
Read other articles in the series here.