Monday, August 15, 2011

This will be interesting

I've complained before about Parliament opening its sessions with an explicitly Christian prayer, dedicating itself to serve explicitly religious goals in its business. Its a historical relic, a legacy of the time when there was no freedom of religion, and sadly parliament is not alone: many of our local bodies do the same. But now, in Whanganui, someone is challenging the practice before the Human Rights Commission:

The council has been at loggerheads on the issue since a meeting in April, when mayor Annette Main suggested that references to God be removed from the prayer used to open each meeting, as a way of respecting all faiths.

The informal remark sparked a furore about whether praying was an appropriate item of business on the council agenda. But before the council could formally vote on the issue, it became the subject of a complaint to the Human Rights Commission, which stepped in to mediate, freezing any public discussion on the issue.

Councillor Clive Solomon broke his media silence and confirmed to The Dominion Post yesterday that it was he who laid the complaint with the commission, as a way of getting a neutral voice on the issue through mediation.

He could not comment on what was said at mediation, other than to say it failed to find a solution. He has now asked the Office of Human Rights Proceedings – an independent director attached to the commission – to consider taking his case to the [Human Rights Review] tribunal.

Note that this isn't an issue of councillors' freedom of religion, though they will try to paint it that way. Religious councillors are free to believe what they want and publicly manifest that belief. The problem here is that they are hijacking a state body as a vehicle for that religion - and in the process sending a very clear message to those who do not share their beliefs that this is not their government and that they do not belong.

(Religious people who wish to deny this may consider how they would feel if every session of Parliament opened with a black mass or the Muslim profession of faith).

It will be interesting to see what happens next. The case itself is a slam-dunk: official prayer is prima facie discriminatory, and there's no possible argument that it could be considered a justified limitation (to do so it would have to serve an important public purpose. What's the public purpose of praising the great bearded sky fairy?). But if the Tribunal rules against Whanganui, they'll also effectively be ruling against Parliament, which is going to raise some serious hackles, both religious and constitutional.