Some of Western Australia’s most significant local governments are facing calls to scrap the practice of praying during council meetings.
The City of Stirling and the City of Perth recite a Christian prayer as part of official proceedings at the beginning of each council meeting.
Monash University Professor of Constitutional Law Luke Beck says the prayers may be unlawful.
“Government can only do things the law explicitly lets them and in the Local Government Act there’s nothing authorising local councils to have a religious ritual as part of their official proceedings,” he says.
Mr Beck also says the prayers could be in breach of anti-discrimination laws.
Nationally, about a third of councils begin meetings with a prayer. More than 90 per cent of the time, it is a Christian one.
Only eight per cent of WA councils recite a prayer, the lowest of any state. WA’s largest council, the City of Stirling and the CBD local government of the City of Perth are among those that do.
The wording of the prayers recited in the City of Stirling and the City of Perth. Graphic: Dylan Storer.
“I’m quite staggered at the City of Stirling being one of those that still adhere to the Christian faith prayer,” says Stirling resident and multicultural advocate Suresh Rajan.
“They are (the cities of Stirling and Perth) amongst the most diverse communities we have in Western Australia, particularly when you look at somewhere like Stirling, which takes in Mirrabooka and other suburbs that are very very diverse.”
Mr Rajan, who is of the Hindu faith, says the practice is discriminatory.
“The fact that I’m of a different faith and if I am going to go to council I am not going to be recognised at the start of the meeting I lose value in their eyes, I am considered an equal in all other things but I cannot be equal in the practice of my faith in a very important setting,” he says.
The debate of prayers in council meetings is happening across the country.
Last month, Victoria’s Boroondara Council paused the practice of praying in council meetings in response to a potential legal challenge from a non-religious councillor. The City of Adelaide is also considering stopping the practice in the face of a campaign from the Australian Christian lobby to convince councillors to keep the prayer.
Ambassador for the National Secular Lobby and social commentator, Jane Caro, says all councils should stop prayers.
“I am still disappointed that it happens, we are a multicultural and multi-faith community right across the board and local councils are representative of everyone in their council area including people of many faiths and people of none,” she says.
“I have nothing against a statement of philosophy or some sort of formal opening to a council meeting but I think whatever that is should be inclusive rather than exclusive.”
Mr Beck says it’s time for the City of Stirling and the City of Perth to be more inclusive.
“Those councils are obviously out of line with the majority of councils in Western Australia,” he says.
“It would be really interesting for the councillors who make up those councils to say publicly why they think that they should be playing favourites between religions and why a religious ritual should be a part of official business.”
The City of Perth and City of Stirling have been contacted for comment.