Proposal to replace the parliamentary prayer with an invitation to prayer or reflection

Submission of the Victorian Secular Lobby, Inc to the Senate Standing Committee on Procedure.

1. Status of the Submission

On 27 June 2018, the Senate referred the following matter concerning parliamentary prayer to the Senate Standing Committee on Procedure ("the Committee") for inquiry and report by 22 August 2018.

A proposal has been made to replace the parliamentary prayer with an invitation to prayer or reflection. The Committee has invited submissions and will take evidence in public session.

This submission is a contribution by the Victorian Secular Lobby, Inc. addressing the terms of reference of the Committee's inquiry. The Victorian Secular Lobby is incorporated in the State of Victoria, Number A00594400A.

Representatives of the Victorian Secular Lobby are willing to meet members of the Committee in public or private sessions. This submission may be published by the Committee.

2. Standing Order 50, Current Status

The current standing order (amended 26 October 2010) is entitled "50 Prayer and acknowledgement of country" requires the president read the following prayer:

"Almighty God, we humbly beseech Thee to vouchsafe Thy special blessing upon this Parliament, and that Thou wouldst be pleased 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.

Our Father, which art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in Heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen."

The President shall then make an acknowledgement of country:

"I acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples who are the traditional custodians of the Canberra area and pay respect to the elders, past and present, of all Australia’s Indigenous peoples."

3. Proposed Amendment to Title

It is proposed to omit the existing heading and substitute "50 Prayer or reflection and acknowledgement of country".

The proposed amendment removes "prayer" as a requirement and allows for the option of prayer or reflection, depending on the individual Senator. As has been noted (Puig and Tudor, 2009) prayer is an inherently religious practise, as as a result the existing Senate Standing Order therefore constitutes a religious test to the president of the Senate.

The current requirement appears to contradict of Section 116 of the Australian Constitution.

"The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth."

It is insufficient to argue that the Senate Standing Orders are not a law. The Constitutional directive prohibits both the making of laws for the establishment (observance, free exercise etc) of religion but also specifies with the logical operator 'and', 'no religious test shall be required ...' etc. Under existing Senate Standing Orders a president of the Senate who refuses to invoke in standing order 50 is, by means of religious test, breaking their standing order and breeching their requirements as the president.

The proposed amendment to title, whilst ensuring the requirement for the secular acknowledgement of country (use of the logical 'and' clause), remove the religious requirement as a test whilst allowing for a religious option (use of the logical 'or' clause).

The Victorian Secular Lobby Inc., supports the proposed amendment to title.

4. Proposed New First Paragraph

It is proposed to omit all words after "following" in the first paragraph and substitute with "invitation to prayer or reflection: Senators, let us, in silence, pray or reflect upon our responsibilities to all people of Australia, and to future generations".

Similar comments are made concerning the 'Amendment to Title' regarding the relationship to the content and Section 116 of the Australian Constitution. In addition the current prayer is specifically not just religious, but Christian, and even more so, not just Christian but a particularly Protestant prayer (c.f., Puig and Tudor, 2009, ibid). It is even more of a sectarian religious test than the requirement of prayer itself.

Such religious sectarianism is deeply inappropriate for a secular institution and is especially inappropriate for those who do not share that particular creed. In the 2016 Australian census the proportion of the population reporting as Anglicans was 13.3% (down from 23.9% in 1986), Catholics 22.6% (down from 26.1% in 1986), whilst Christianity as a whole was 52.1% (down from 73.0% in 1986%).

An opening of order of business of the Senate should not just satisfy a minority denomination or even a bare-majority religion, regardless of tradition, but rather encourage civic-mindedness from the representatives to all constituents regardless of the religious beliefs (or lack thereof) of either the representatives or the constituents.

The proposed amendment allows for individual Senators to engage in this responsibility in a manner which both satisfies those with religious beliefs and for those who do not. It satisfies both the requirements of the constitution, removes the religious and denominational sectarian test, and incorporates the demographic changes that Australia has experienced.

The Victorian Secular Lobby Inc., supports the proposed new first paragraph.

5. Further Considerations

The remarks on this document will also apply for standing order 38 of the House of Representatives, which has similar requirements. If the proposed title amendment and new paragraph is implement the House of Representatives should also seek an equivalent change.

6. References

Gonzalo Villalta Puig and Steven Tudor, "To the Advancement of Thy Glory?: A Constitutional and Policy Critique of Parliamentary Prayers", 20 Public Law Review 56, 58-9, 2009