The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd and the Leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, are both absolutely correct in rejecting the proposal to end the practice of the Speaker reading the traditional prayers when opening proceedings each sitting day in the House of Representatives.
After the bells ring throughout Parliament House for five minutes to call Members to the Chamber, the Speaker enters, preceded by the Serjeant-at-Arms, who announces 'Honourable Members—the Speaker'.
On taking the Chair ( a poor substitute for the beautiful ornate chair in Old Parliament House, with wood from Nelson's flagship "Victory" and from Westminster Hall) the Speaker bows to each side of the Chamber and the Members present, in turn, bow to the Speaker.
The Speaker then reads the prescribed prayers with Members remaining standing, before calling for the first item of business.
Standing Order 38 of the Standing Orders provides that at the beginning of each sitting, the Speaker shall read The Lord’s Prayer preceded by this prayer:
“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.”
It is right and proper that this practice be retained. Our Judeo Christian principles and values came with the settlement in 1788. The Christian religion is part of the common law and the Crown is very much a Christian institution. Even the English language has been indelibly influenced by Christianity, in particular, the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.
The settlement in 1788, although penal, was very much influenced by religion. But unlike the American colonies, our nation was not made up of settlers seeking the freedom to practice their particular form of Christianity and to escape the ordered liturgy and three tiered clergy of the Church of England.
To a great extent this may explain why the United States today is such a religious nation.
But to return to Australia , it is relevant to recall that when we agreed to federate, we did so “ humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God.” This had very strong popular support at the time.
As a balance, section 116 provides that the Commonwealth shall not make any law establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion and that no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.
So while Australia was and today is a Christian nation, this in no way acts to the detriment or disadvantage of those of other religions or of no religion.
It is thought that the Standing Orders do not constitute a law imposing any religious observance, but merely regulate the procedure of the Parliament.
The American Constitution provides against the establishment of a religion or mandating religious tests.
In more recent years the US Supreme Court has taken this further than the Founding Fathers ever intended, for example by prohibiting prayers in public schools.
The constitutional provision was only about the federal polity with no intention of affecting the states, a number of which had established churches.
Incidentally, the proposal for a change to the Standing Orders came from Greens Leader, Senator Bob Brown, responding to the curious invitation from the Speaker that the question be debated.