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Call to end long-standing religious tradition in Australia's parliament

The controversial petition is seeking a change to the way elected politicians conduct themselves at the beginning of every sitting in Parliament House.

Australians are divided over a renewed push to remove a long-standing tradition that sees the Australian Federal Parliament recite Christian prayers at the beginning of each sitting day.

As parliament resumed this week, a group of pro-secular Australian bodies pushed a petition on the Australian Parliament House website, requesting the House of Representatives to modernise its standing orders and replace daily Christian prayers with a more appropriate practice that does not "privilege one religious worldview above others".

"Australia’s multicultural society is becoming increasingly non-religious, and more religiously diverse," Michael Dove, the principal petitioner and chair of Secularism Australia Conference’s organising committee told Yahoo News Australia. "To reflect modern Australia, it is time for federal parliament to change its practices," he argues.

A debate has been raging over whether Christian prayers should be removed from The House of Representatives' standing orders. Source: Getty
A debate has been raging over whether Christian prayers should be removed from The House of Representatives' standing orders. Source: Getty

While some Aussies shared support for the change online, there are many religious and non-religious people, who say they are against removing the long-standing "tradition".

"I see no reason to change this. Our parliamentary system has its roots in Western political philosophy, and part of that is linked to Christianity. There are a thousand more urgent things to fix," one person said, with countless others agreeing.

Christianity declining in popularity in Australia

The 2021 Census indicates Christianity decreased by more than 1 million people and now makes up less than half of the population. Still, it was Australia’s most common religion at the time.

List of the most common religions in 2021:

  • Christianity (43.9%)

  • No religion (38.9%)

  • Islam (3.2%)

  • Hinduism (2.7%)

  • Buddhism (2.4%)

Calls for changes to Australian parliamentary sittings

Since 1901, two Christian prayers have been included in standing orders for the House of Representatives and are said each day the House sits for their meetings.

What is the House of Representatives?

The House currently has 151 Members who each represent an electoral division and are elected via public vote. The political party with the most members in the House of Representatives becomes the governing party and its leader becomes prime minister.

Their main function is to consider and pass new laws, amendments, and/or changes to existing laws. Members can also present petitions from citizens and raise citizens' concerns and grievances in debate.

What are the standing orders?

Standing orders are the rules about how the Senate and the House of Representatives run their meetings. Along with the Australian Constitution and other traditional customs, standing orders guide the way they run their sessions each day.

The prayers in question

Upon taking the chair of the House each day, the speaker makes an acknowledgement of country and then reads two prayers, one of which is the Lord's prayer.

According to the Parliament of Australia website, this has been happening since June 7, 1901 when the House agreed to a motion to include prayers in the standing orders.

The petition put forward to the House

Petitioning the parliament is a request for action and is the only direct way an individual or group can ask the parliament to take action on an issue.

This petition, closing 11.59pm on Wednesday, November 15, was submitted on behalf of the sponsors of the first Secularism Australia Conference, which include the NSW Teachers Federation, Humanists Australia, and the Rationalist Society of Australia.

In it, they state, "starting proceedings with an act of worship in the Christian tradition sends a message to non-Christians that they are not welcome and their worldviews are not respected. Parliament is a pillar of our democracy. It should reflect modern Australia and be welcoming for all".

"Our institutions ought to acknowledge and honour [our] diversity in the highest of our democratic institutions, our parliaments," Rationalist Society of Australia told Yahoo.

Previously, in 2022, Senate President Sue Lines called for the Lord’s prayer to no longer feature in the Senate. "On the one hand we’ve had almost every parliamentary leader applaud the diversity of the parliament and so if we are genuine about the diversity of the parliament, we cannot continue to say a Christian prayer to open the day," she said at the time.

Read more about the petition here. At the time of writing more than 3,000 Australians have signed it.

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