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Christians rally as council prayer row escalates

Adelaide City Council’s Tuesday night meeting was disrupted after a councillor was temporarily expelled for breaching a ban on reading aloud a Christian prayer. See the video

Aug 09, 2023, updated Aug 09, 2023
File photos: Lord Mayor Jane Lomax-Smith and councillor Henry Davis have been in an ongoing battle this year over the reading of a Christian prayer at the beginning of council meetings. Photos: Tony Lewis/InDaily

File photos: Lord Mayor Jane Lomax-Smith and councillor Henry Davis have been in an ongoing battle this year over the reading of a Christian prayer at the beginning of council meetings. Photos: Tony Lewis/InDaily

The Town Hall public gallery was full for the start of last night’s fortnightly council meeting, with dozens of Christians coming to support a protest by South Ward councillor Henry Davis.

Davis has been protesting a change to council’s meeting procedures – first enacted in April – whereby the Christian prayer is no longer read aloud by the council CEO at the start of meetings.

The prayer is instead printed in the council agenda, with Lord Mayor Jane Lomax-Smith inviting councillors to “read the prayer as printed or reflect in a manner appropriate to their beliefs on these issues”.

At council’s June 13 meeting, Davis read the prayer aloud while other councillors were silent. Lomax-Smith responded at the next meeting by asking members to “silently read the prayer as printed” but this did not stop Davis’ protest, nor did a rebuke from Lomax-Smith during the preamble.

Then, at council’s July 25 meeting, Lomax-Smith introduced the prayer in combination with the council’s regular moment of silence for military veterans who died at land, air and sea. Davis did not read the prayer aloud on that occasion.

Adelaide City Council’s August 8 agenda for the opening of the meeting. Lord Mayor Jane Lomax-Smith last month combined items three and four in a bid to keep councillor Henry Davis from reading the prayer aloud.

The matter came to a head on Tuesday night when Davis decided to read the prayer despite the Lord Mayor combining the memorial silence with the prayer.

Davis read the 36-word prayer in full despite Lomax-Smith interruptions.

“Councillor, councillor, I asked you not to be disorderly – I’ll have an adjournment now,” the Lord Mayor said.

When Davis finished the prayer, those who had gathered in the Town Hall gallery to support Davis echoed his “Amen”.

Lomax-Smith accused Davis of behaving in an improper manner under Section 86 (6a) of the Local Government Act by not complying with an instruction and disrupting the memorial silence.

Davis was then asked to provide a personal explanation for his actions.

“We had a huge response from our community requesting the prayer remain in our agenda, and there has since that time been no motion to amend our agenda,” Davis told the Lord Mayor.

“Over the course of the last six months, you’ve spent successive times amending the words in item three.

“Now our prayer is done verbally, and it’s done collectively, and I disagree and I have serious issues with your tactics to prevent what is a valid motion of council from being heard.”

Davis said he took “personal disgust” to the move to combine the memorial silence with the prayer.

“I’m a former member of the Royal Australian Air Force. My name, which is my grandfather’s name, is written along with 103,000 other names on the walls of the War Memorial in Canberra,” he said.

“I think to combine the prayer as a tactic and try to diminish my views, my personal religious views in praying… is a disrespect to his name and all other veterans, and I think that is a tactic you should not employ.

“In my view, if you seriously do want to change the agenda, if you don’t want to respect my cultural beliefs – and I know that you respect others – then the appropriate conduct to do that is to bring a motion to council and hear from what our community says.

“And there’s a large number of people in the chamber today who disagree with your tactics in trying to disrupt this agenda.”

Those attending the council meeting applauded Davis when he finished his speech, prompting Lomax-Smith to stand up and ask the gallery “to be quiet”.

The Lord Mayor then ruled that she was adhering to the council agenda because “each of the items has been mentioned in the order that it’s listed” and ordered Davis to leave the chamber for five minutes.

As Davis left the room, all those seated in the public gallery supporting the protest also left the room loudly – prompting Lomax-Smith to suspend the meeting for five minutes and leaving the remaining councillors in a bewildered silence.

InDaily asked the Lord Mayor whether she believed the participation of those in the public gallery on Tuesday was appropriate. Lomax-Smith said in a statement: “At the end of the day, what we need is for people to behave properly in our meetings and that includes guests in the public gallery,”

“There will be a further discussion on the review of standing orders in the weeks ahead.

“The meeting procedures have not changed to date however the community would want us to get on with the job and avoid these types of theatrics, whilst being inclusive of all religious beliefs – not just one.”

Davis returned to the council chamber at 5.53pm and the meeting proceeded without further incident.

The flashpoint comes after the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) earlier this year began a campaign to “keep prayer in Adelaide City Council”.

The campaign urged members of the public to “write an urgent letter to the Lord Mayor, Deputy Mayor and all councillors” urging them “NOT to remove prayer, or the other tributes, from their Council meetings”.

Eight hundred people acted on the campaign, according to the ACL’s campaign figures.

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It’s unclear if the ACL organised the attendance of people in the Town Hall gallery on Tuesday night. InDaily attempted to reach the group for comment.

Davis estimates there were 40 people in the gallery to support his protest. Asked by InDaily if he coordinated their attendance, Davis replied: “(The story’s) been published a number of times in Adelaide and there are a number of people who don’t agree with removing the prayer from the council chambers.”

“And they’ve seen this story progress over the last few weeks and a large number of members from our community came out… and I was very grateful to them.”

Asked if anyone gave him a head’s up about the turnout, Davis said: “I just got a call from a member of my community saying that they were organising.”

“I also did get a letter from the Australian Christian lobby saying that it was appropriate to pray out loud.”

Asked if the ACL organised the protest, Davis said “they may well have” but questions should be directed to them.

“I think if the members of the gallery are prepared to come and support me – I appreciate it,” he said.

“But also, I’m not doing it for them, I’m doing it for my own religious beliefs.”

Davis is a tax lawyer and former Liberal Party member who has previously described his brand of politics as “moderate”.

The row between him and the Lord Mayor over the prayer has no clear end in sight. Davis said he would abide by the moment’s silence if we “democratically choose to alter our agenda”.

“I’m going to continue to follow the agenda,” he said.

“The agenda has the prayer written in it, it… used to say that I could read it or that I could reflect on the prayer in a manner appropriate to my beliefs.

“And so, I’ll continue to reflect on it in a manner appropriate to my beliefs.”

Lomax-Smith told ABC Radio Adelaide earlier this morning that “Henry loves a bit of courtroom drama and, of course being a lawyer, he likes to go down and pretend that something’s unlawful”.

“But let’s just go back to first principles: the reality is that there has to be a moment of contemplation because councils do have moments of madness and bad behaviour, and there can be disruption,” she said.

“So it’s great that we have a segment of our agenda, but it’s just a reflection on how we should behave.

“But the policy – standing orders – that Henry keeps quoting actually just require that there’ll be a prayer listed on the agenda… it’s silent on what the prayer is, it’s silent on who manages the prayer, it’s silent on who reads it.”

Adelaide City Council’s next meeting is on Tuesday, August 22.

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