Herald Sun: Council prayer: Call for community say on bid to take God off agenda

Article by Lucy Callander, published in the Herald Sun and other News Corp papers on 8 February 2021. This article is in response to our item on the prayers showdown at Mornington Peninsula.

A religious showdown is looming on the Mornington Peninsula as two councillors fight to put God back on the agenda.

Cr Hugh Fraser wants a recent decision to swap the prayer for a secular pledge to be revoked and the community given a chance to have its say on how meetings should begin.

And Cr Antonella Celi has asked for the wording of the pledge – adopted by the council in 2020 – be referred to an overall review of the council’s governance rules.

Both requests will be considered by the council on Tuesday night.

Cr Fraser said the legal advice councillors received when making the decision was “plainly wrong”.

“It is not possible to split hairs and characterise a civil ‘pledge’ (so described by its express terms) as a ‘prayer’,” he said.

“To do so avoids the requirements of the Local Government Act 2020 and council’s policies and dispensed with council’s obligation to consult with the community.”

Cr Celi said while she was proud to call herself a Christian, her bid to save the prayer was about “good governance and community consultation” not religion.

“I had a lot of feedback from shocked and upset community members when the decision to remove the prayer was made,” she said.

The controversial decision to drop any religious references from the start of council meetings was the first order of business for new councillor Anthony Marsh.

It took two attempts but Cr Marsh was successful in replacing the prayer with a secular pledge on December 8.

At the time he said the prayer “does not reflect the religious diversity of our community and does not foster or promote a genuinely inclusive environment”.

National Secular Lobby president Peter Monk said councillors should not be forced to participate in religious ceremonies in the workplace.

“If councils are serious about being inclusive, and about representing their entire community, they cannot include sectarian prayers as part of their official business,” Mr Monk said.

He said there was a fair and informed vote on the initial decision to change the wording of the prayer to make it a secular pledge.

“Community consultation was not required in this case as it is an internal council matter,” he said.

The pledge was meant to be read at the start of Tuesday night’s meeting.

However Cr Fraser’s move to revoke the decision means the original prayer will be read – possibly for the last time.

Mornington Peninsula Shire Council will consider the matter at a meeting on Tuesday.

The meeting will be held at 6.30pm at Peninsula Community Theatre, 91 Wilsons Rd, Mornington.

It will be open to the public and live streamed via the council website.