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Luke Beck, a CRU Associate, has contributed the following post about prayer in the Commonwealth Parliament:

From time to time there are calls for Parliament to stop opening its proceedings with prayers. Equally, there are those who support the practice. For example, former prime minister, John Howard once said that to get rid of parliamentary prayers would be to ‘abandon our Judeo-Christian heritage’.

But why does Parliament open with prayers and is the practice legal?

Why Parliament prays

Parliament did not introduce prayers because of ‘our Judeo-Christian heritage’. It introduced prayers in response to lobbying from churches.

During the 1890s when the Constitution was being drafted, the colonial churches began a campaign of petitions calling for three things. The petitions read:

1. That in the preamble of the Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth it be recognised that God is the Supreme Ruler of the world, and the ultimate source of all law and authority in nations.
2. That there also be embodied in the said Constitution, or in the standing orders of the Federal Parliament, a provision that each daily session of the Upper and Lowers Houses of the Federal Parliament be opened with a prayer by the President and Speaker, or by a chaplain.
3. That the Governor-General be empowered to appoint days of national thanksgiving and humiliation. The Constitutional Convention drafting the Constitution received 49 petitions to this effect containing more than 36,000 signatures. That was a very large number in the 1890s.

The petitioners achieved two of their aims. The preamble to the Constitution says that in deciding to federate the Australian people were ‘humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God’. And prayers began in Parliament in June 1901.

It is interesting to note that the Constitutional Convention did not start its day with prayers. And, only some of the colonial Parliaments had prayers. Indeed, some of them had even abandoned the practice by the time of the Constitutional Convention. Some of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention considered the parliamentary practice to be a ‘farce’, ‘a perfect piece of mockery’ and a ‘matter of … indifference’.

What are the prayers?

There are two parliamentary prayers. In the House of Representatives the Speaker reads the following prayers:

Almighty God, we humbly beseech Thee to vouchsafe 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.

The first prayer in the Senate read by its President has a minor difference in wording.

Are these prayers ‘Judeo-Christian’? You can probably recognise the second prayer as the Lord’s Prayer. But it is not generically Christian.

There are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer: a Catholic one and a Protestant one. The difference is the line ‘For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever’. That line appears only in the King James Version of the Bible used by Protestants.

When the prayers were introduced in the House of Representatives in 1901, the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne at the time called them ‘distinctly Protestant’.

The first prayer is not just distinctly Protestant it is also distinctly Anglican. It is a modified version of the ‘Prayer for the High Court of Parliament’ in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer.

Is it legal?

As it happens, there are also petitions relevant to this question.

The churches were not the only ones sending petitions to the Constitutional Convention in the 1890s. Petitions with almost 8,000 signatures were sent to the Convention asking it to ensure that the Commonwealth would not be able to legislate to interfere with religious liberty.

These petitions were largely organised by the Seventh Day Adventists who were worried that any reference to God in the Constitution might be seen as giving the Commonwealth power to legislate for religious matters. They feared they might be on the receiving end of any such legislation.

They got what they wanted too. At the end of the Constitutional Convention, its president Edmund Barton, who later became Australia’s first prime minister, explained what had been decided:

While, therefore, a concession has been made to the popular opinion that some reverential expression should be embodied in the preamble, 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

The due care was section 116 of the Constitution. It says:

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.

So, do the standing orders requiring parliamentary prayers violate section 116? The prayers appear to closely identify Parliament – the heart of the Australian state – with Protestant Christianity. After all, the first prayer says that Parliament works to the advancement of God’s glory. This might be seen as involving some sort of religious establishment.

The standing orders also rather look like they impose a religious observance. They command the Speaker (and the President of the Senate) to read the prayers. Mandatory prayer might also be seen as an interference with the free exercise of religion.

Even if all of this were accepted it would only make the prayers unconstitutional if the standing orders requiring they be read are ‘laws’. There are arguments for and against that conclusion, and the answer is not clear.

That said, one politician seems to have had a point when he said in opposing the introduction of parliamentary prayers in 1901:

What did the framers of the Constitution mean? Did they mean that the Parliament was not to impose religious observances in the streets or in the schools? Did they mean that Parliament was not to impose religious observances anywhere else but here?

If you look closely at section 116 you will see that its final clause about religious tests is not limited in its application only to laws. If it were to be accepted that the requirement to read prayers every day amounts to a religious test for the position of Speaker (and also President of the Senate) then there might well be constitutional problems with the parliamentary prayers.

Legalities aside, given that in the 2011 census nearly half of the population reported either being Catholic (25.3%) or having no religion (22.3%) it might be wondered why Parliament continues to say distinctly Protestant prayers every day.