In December of last year, Cr Doriana Coppola of Charles Sturt Council in South Australia initiated a proposal to remove prayer from the pledge before Council meetings. Cr Coppola’s issue was that the outdated practice was not appropriate for the diverse community that Council represents.
What was intended to be a simple and uncontroversial proposal has been anything but. The churches are up in arms, the media got involved, and the matter was put forward for community consultation.
Council will review the prayer and pledge and come to a decision on Monday 13th May at 7 pm at Council Chambers, the Civic Centre, 72 Woodville Road, Woodville.
You can show support for Cr Coppola by attending this meeting.
Flinders Secular Society has created an event that will support the secular position, that there should be no prayer at any level of government, in keeping with the principle of church-state separation. (Note: you don’t have to sign up with this event, since the meeting is open to the public.)
The Secular Party’s position is that Council should remove all forms of prayer from its procedures, including at the opening of Council meetings. The Secular Party’s submission to Council appears below.
Review of Pledge and Prayer
Secular Party Submission to the City of Charles Sturt Council
The Secular Party of Australia thanks the City of Charles Sturt Council for giving the public this opportunity to comment on Council’s review of the pledge and prayer that is recited at the opening of Council meetings.
On behalf of our members and supporters, we urge Council to remove all forms of prayer from its ceremonies and procedures, including at the opening of Council meetings. We propose that this should be replaced with a pledge in which councillors will conduct their duties with honour and integrity, endeavour to promote good government, and confirm their responsibility to the people whom they serve.
We would add that the current acknowledgement to the Kaurna People is entirely appropriate, and we believe that it should be retained.
Prayers in Council are not inclusive
The 2011 Census demonstrates that the proportion of Australians who identify as Christian is in significant decline. The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that Christianity was at just over 61% throughout Australia and only 57.3% in South Australia. Australia is a multicultural society; consequently the population now represents many religious views, including polytheistic traditions, and no religion. For Council to attempt to cater for all those views and any future faiths is unrealistic. Indeed, there is no reason why Council should have to do so.
It should be evident that any sort of prayer, no matter how ‘inclusively’ it is worded, will by definition exclude all non-religious members of the community. Again, according to the 2011 Census results, 22.5% of Australians stated that they had ‘No Religion’ and this proportion was much higher in South Australia, at 28%. We believe that the true figures for non-religious Australians are higher again.
- The Census form places the option of ‘No Religion’ last. This in itself will guarantee that those giving the response of ‘No Religion’ will be underrepresented.
- Some people consider the question to be impertinent or as having nothing to do with matters of the state, and therefore refuse to respond.
- Many non-religious people don’t take the question seriously, and give a joke response such as ‘Jedi’.
- The Census form is misleading. The form asks the person to state their religion. As a result many people who were baptised or initiated into a particular religion in early childhood will indicate the faith of their parents, even though they no longer practise that faith or even believe any of its doctrines. This is particularly true when the religion doubles as a cultural or family identity.
We do not, therefore, consider that any governmental body in Australia should identify with any particular religious tradition or with religion in general. To do so means that the body has no intention of faithfully representing the proportion of its community who do not adhere to religious practice.
Prayers in Council subvert the religious freedom of councillors
Given that a significant proportion of Australians do not identify with any religion or else do not identify with any monotheistic religion, it is reasonable to say that there will also be councillors who do not identify with the Judaeo-Christian tradition.
To include the practice of Christianity (or any religion) as part of Council procedures, such as the opening of Council meetings, forces councillors to practise that religion or to attend a religious observance. Clearly, this contravenes the religious freedom of those councillors.
At the same time, there is nothing to prevent a religious councillor, of any faith, from praying outside Council meetings or, indeed, at any time privately within his/her own mind.
Prayers in Council breach principles of church-state separation
The principles of secular government and church-state separation guarantee that no particular religion can gain undue influence over government and thus impose doctrine on all, that government will not suppress religious freedom by supporting a state doctrine, and that elements of the supernatural lacking evidence are not considered by the state. Section 116 of the Australian Constitution states that ‘The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance . . .’ While the Constitution applies at the federal level, it is indicative of the spirit in which this nation was founded. The wording is very similar to that of the Constitution of the United State which guarantees church-state separation and therefore religious freedom. Unfortunately, the principles of church-state separation are not currently observed at the levels of state and local government. It would be disappointing if this situation were to continue.
If Council chooses, by its procedures, to pay homage to a deity, the implication is that councillors are beholden to a higher authority than that of their office. Councillors should be beholden to the rule of law and the people whom they represent. They should not be making decisions based on religious doctrine or the authority of an ‘Almighty Father’.
Religious observance by governmental bodies is detrimental to church-state separation. We therefore submit that all prayers be removed from Council proceedings.
The appeal to antiquity is invalid
The usual argument in favour of imposing religious observances in governmental proceedings is the notion that Australian culture is, historically, based on Judaeo-Christian influences. This is the argument from tradition, or the appeal to antiquity.
Tradition alone does not constitute a valid reason for retaining any practice. Some ‘traditional’ beliefs and practices can be harmful and divisive. It was not so long ago, for example, that homosexual Australians were criminalised. There is no reason to believe that Christianity or any religious faith is beneficial, in and of itself. Furthermore, if we accept that governmental prayers should be retained on the basis of tradition, irrespective of the religious makeup of the general population, we would also have to accept that true ‘tradition’ is that of the First Australians, since their beliefs and practices predate those of the white majority.
We do not accept that any beliefs or traditions should hold sway.
The Secular Party of Australia is opposed to religious observances in governmental matters. We maintain that councillors should focus on matters pertaining to their office, without appeal to the divine or the supernatural. Council prayers are offensive to a multicultural Australia, defy the principles of church-state separation, and violate the religious freedom of councillors.
We hope that these arguments assist Council with its decision.