There’s a good chance your local council starts each official council meeting with a religious prayer – and it’s almost always a Christian prayer.
Around one-third of Australian local governments have a prayer, with the figure rising to more than half of councils in New South Wales and Victoria.
These are just some of the findings reported in my recent article in the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion.
The issue of council prayers is highly contentious. Here’s why it is probably unlawful, and why I think councils should stop.
How many councils have official prayers?
It’s difficult to find up-to-date figures about the number of local councils with official prayers, as things are changing all the time.
But figures from mid-2019 show council prayers are most common in the more populous states.
There are variations in how councils go about praying. The most common method is for the mayor to lead the council in prayer (88 councils do this, out of the 522 councils looked at). The next most common is for a guest preacher to lead the council in prayer (55 councils), followed by a councillor 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 one. Usually this is because the council has a prescribed prayer that’s used every time.
Even when guest preachers are invited, diversity isn’t the goal. Many councils invite only Christian guests. One council even had a policy of inviting preachers from non-Christian faith groups on condition they recite a Christian prayer.
The best way to find out whether and how your council prays is to check the video recording of a recent council meeting. These can be found in the meetings section of your council’s website.
A contentious practice
Adelaide City Council is currently considering whether to stop its practice of praying as part of its official meetings.
The Australian Christian Lobby is running a campaign trying to persuade Adelaide councillors to keep the prayer. It argues that “prayer reminds people that our democracy was founded on Christian truth” and that it is “standing up for religious freedom”.
In January, a group of 21 councillors from various Victorian councils wrote an open letter to the state government and human rights commission asking that guidance be issued to councils about the appropriateness of council prayers.
They wrote that some councillors “object to being compelled […] to participate in a religious ritual as part of their role”, that others think it is unfair and inconsistent with multiculturalism to favour one religion over others, and that others think governmental bodies should be “neutral in matters of religion”.
Census figures show that most Australians today are not Christian. About 44% of Australians report being Christian, while 39% report being not religious at all.
Is it even legal?
England’s High Court ruled in 2012 that official prayers in English local councils were unlawful. The High Court pointed out that governmental bodies like councils can only do things the law says they can do.
The High Court found there was no law allowing English councils to have prayers, which meant that councils having prayers was unlawful. The British Parliament later passed a law to expressly allow councils to have prayers.
Last year, I published an article in the Alternative Law Journal arguing that the logic of the English High Court decision applies in Australia too. There’s no law in any Australian jurisdiction allowing local councils to include religious prayers as part of the official business of council meetings. Indeed, Australian local government legislation emphasises the importance of equality and councils respecting the diversity of their populations.
Australian councils know there are legal risks in continuing to include religious prayers as part of their official meetings.
In Queensland, Fraser Coast Regional Council’s chief executive told that council in January 2023 he had received legal advice that their Christian prayer practice may be discriminatory under Queensland’s religious discrimination laws.
The corporate governance manager of Banyule City Council in Victoria reported to that council in July 2022 that its prayer
raise[s] human rights implications as a person, particularly councillors or staff, who identify as being of no religion or holding secular beliefs or other non-Christian beliefs, may feel coerced by having to recite a Christian prayer as part of the council meeting formalities.
And just last month, Boroondara Council in suburban Melbourne halted its practice of praying during council meetings in response to a legal letter from Maurice Blackburn lawyers representing a non-religious councillor.
Maurice Blackburn’s Jennifer Kanis told The Age newspaper that having religious prayers as part of official council meetings was “beyond the powers given to council” as well as being in contravention of Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities.
A council may well find itself in court over this issue. But instead of dealing with court cases, our elected representatives should simply choose to open their official council meetings with something more inclusive and representative of the whole community.