THE decision to drop saying a prayer before Mornington Peninsula Shire Council meetings was made despite 33 public submissions for it to be kept (plus a further 24 after the comment deadline) and 11 supporting a pledge suggested by Cr Anthony Marsh.
Despite easily attracting the most feedback of any issue concerning the revised Governance Rules, in-house lawyer Amanda Sapolu told councillors “as a result of the community feedback, it is not considered that there are any changes required to be made to the substantive Governance Rules [which do not include the prayer]”.
Ms Sapolu, who is the legal and governance manager, told council in December 2020 that the wording did not matter provided it was called a prayer (“God purged from council prayer” The News 14/12/20).
Cr Antonella Celi last week said the prayer had occupied “a rightful place on the agenda for 150 years [of local government on the peninsula]”. She had disagreed with the pledge being called a prayer as “it’s not a prayer if it doesn’t mention God – to God the glory”.
The rules adopted by councillors last week do not rule out a prayer or a pledge being included on the agenda in the future.
At the start of council’s Tuesday 24 August online public meeting, in what could be the last time it is heard, Cr Marsh – after being asked by the mayor Cr Despi O’Connor to read the agenda item labelled Prayer – recited the pledge: “We pledge that this council will act in the best interests of the entire Mornington Peninsula community.” The pledge also mentioned making decisions on merit and with an open mind and “treating each other with respect”.
In speaking about the decision to drop the prayer (or pledge) as an agenda item, Cr Marsh said, “nothing here is new”.
“The prayer was said by councillors and for the benefit of councillors and for the benefit of councillors to help them in their decision making. It’s an exclusionary practice and it’s just totally mind boggling that it’s something we even talk about in a workplace in 2021,” he said.
“I’m embarrassed to say that we have spent almost 20 per cent of this four-year term talking about this issue, so it’s time we put this to bed and got on with the job.”
When council originally decided to drop the prayer, at Cr Marsh’s suggestion on 8 December 2020, the National Secular Lobby (NSL) was quick to celebrate, releasing a press release that same night stating: “Tonight’s push to remove Christian prayers from council meetings at the Mornington Peninsula Shire has succeeded!”
Possibly unknown to other councillors at the meeting the NSL issued a statement earlier in the day titled Decision day for Mornington Peninsula prayers.
That statement said Cr Marsh was “on a mission today” and that night would “seek to remove ‘exclusionary’ Christian prayers from the official proceedings of council meetings”.
It also quoted Cr Kerri McCafferty as saying it was “necessary for government to uphold the principle of secularism and to promote inclusion”.
“I feel extremely uncomfortable that prayers are spoken in my workplace on my behalf and, specifically, about the work that I do,” Cr McCafferty is quoted as saying.
“I do not subscribe to those beliefs. It simply isn’t appropriate to assume the belief system of councillors.”
Cr Marsh was criticised at the time for not mentioning his intention to replace the prayer with a pledge during his election campaign.