“Paris vaut une messe” (“Paris is worth a mass”)

— Henry IV of France

Everyone has an opinion as to what is driving Australians away from our traditional adherence to Christian faiths. The reasons being proposed are interpretive, not factual. But what the census results indisputably show is that the proportion of respondents who give one of the Christian religions as their faith is in steady decline, while the “no religion” sector is growing rapidly.

Yet on every sitting day of federal Parliament — an institution that purports to be the ultimate representation of our national democratic will — proceedings begin with the recitation of a Christian prayer.

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The creation of a federated Australia was apparently achieved without the help of The Almighty. The meetings of the Constitutional Convention during the 1890s that forged our nation were not preceded by prayer. But the founding fathers were already under intense pressure from the various churches — each for its own reasons — to give God a prominent place in the new formal structure of our body politic.  

That pressure, expressed in a blizzard of petitions, eventually achieved its goal. At the conclusion of the convention its president, Edmund Barton, felt the need to note why the words “humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God” had been included in the preamble of their proposed constitution:

“… a concession has been made to the popular opinion that some reverential expression should be embodied in the preamble…”

But, in the same sentence, the man who would soon become our first prime minister was also careful to explain the heavy qualifications his colleagues placed on this single reference to a higher being and the place of religion in a federated Australia:

“… due care has been taken by the Convention that no reliance upon that provision, and no far-fetched arguments based upon it, shall lead to any infraction of religious liberty under the laws of the Commonwealth which we hope to create…”

Yet the colonial God-botherers were still not satisfied. Their petitions demanded that the standing orders of the new national parliament should contain:

“… a provision that each daily session of the Upper and Lower Houses of the Federal Parliament be opened with a prayer by the President and Speaker…”

And so it came to pass that when our first Parliament finally settled down to the business of making laws in June 1901, one of the earliest motions agreed to by the House of Representatives was “That the Standing Orders should provide that, upon Mr Speaker taking the Chair, he shall read a prayer”. Interestingly, the Senate didn’t get around to adopting a prayerful beginning until 1903, after being bullied by yet another petition from the Presbyterian church.  

Here, for those who’ve never watched or listened to Parliament, are the words as meant to be spoken by the Speaker and the President at the start of every sitting day:

Almighty God, we humbly beseech Thee to vouch safe Thy blessing upon this Parliament. Direct and prosper our deliberations to the advancement of Thy glory, and 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.”

Typical of those sectarian times, the version of The Lord’s Prayer as adopted by Parliament provoked immediate criticism. Catholics use a slightly different form of words (omitting the “For thine is the kingdom” line), which led the then Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne to call the parliamentary prayer “distinctly Protestant”.

So why, after more than a century, does this anachronistic late-Victorian piety of prayers-before-Parliament survive in Australia? Why do the House and Senate continue to pretend that the nation is some form of homogeneous Christian monoculture?

The answer, as is so often the case in Australian politics, would seem to be sheer cowardice. With the exception of the Greens, no party has had the courage to challenge the standing orders that require the reading of prayers before every session of Parliament. John Howard, while prime minister, said that to cease the practice of saying prayers at the beginning of each sitting day would be “to abandon our Judeo-Christian heritage”.

But what if this intrusion of one religious faith into our process of law-making was itself against the law of the land? The relevant statute is the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, and section 116 in particular:

“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.”

Those are the words Edmund Barton was referring to when he emphasised the need to take “due care” in framing the manner in which the constitution dealt with religion.

Back in the 1890s the principal intent of that section was undoubtedly to exclude the fierce Catholic/Protestant sectarianism of the day from the processes of government. But 120 years later those words can be construed in ways that might convince the High Court that the reading of prayers in Parliament might be unconstitutional, and therefore unlawful.     

Section 116 would clearly forbid Parliament from passing a law that required school children or government employees to start their day with a prayer. So if our lawmakers cannot compel religious observance on anyone else in Australia, why should they be able impose such practices on themselves?

These are just some of the possible s.116 legal objections that have been raised:

  • The standing orders appear to impose a religious observance on Parliament. They make it mandatory that the Speaker and the President of the Senate read the prayers;
  • The prayers identify Parliament with Protestant Christianity only, and as such may limit the free exercise of religion as guaranteed by the constitution;
  • When the Parliament of Australia prays to God, it is effectively the state itself at prayer, evidence of a commitment to a particular religious belief or observance; and
  • All members of Parliament are included in the prayers, regardless of their religious views (or non-religion). This practice violates their freedom of religion.

But there’s a major, maybe insurmountable, catch. Before considering any of those arguments the High Court would first have to determine the threshold issue of whether the standing orders of our Parliament are truly “laws”. That is the sticking point on which any constitutional challenge to prayers is likely to fail.         

Mindful of its own separation of powers position (Parliament vs Judiciary), the High Court cannot reasonably be expected to countenance making orders dictating to the Parliament the content of its procedural processes. The standing orders (of which the requirement to read prayers form a part) do not have the primary characteristics of a law, nor are they determined by the ordinary mechanics of creating legislation.  

Nevertheless, as Parliament makes its own standing orders, it could equally unmake them. The only real question for those seeking to do away with the practice of daily prayers is how to put enough pressure on our elected representatives so that they would have to consider abolition.

The answer, with rather appealing symmetry, may well be a petition — the same lobbying lever that was so effectively employed more than a century ago to impose prayers on Parliament in the first place.