The threat of a costly legal challenge has persuaded Wanganui District Council to overturn 170 years' tradition and stop opening meetings with a Christian prayer.
But the "compromise" of having a separate, informal prayer session before each meeting has not gone down well with some councillors – including former mayor Michael Laws, who wants religion banished altogether.
Councillors voted in the new measures yesterday, overturning their December resolution to keep the prayer as a formal item of business on the council agenda.
The change of heart was prompted by a judgment from the High Court of Justice in Britain last month, which ruled that reciting prayers as part of a formal council meeting was not lawful under its Local Government Act.
However, the court did not believe reciting a prayer discriminated against councillors with no religious beliefs.
Councillor Clive Solomon, who first raised an objection to the prayer back in April, tabled the new information.
Dr Solomon indicated he would mount a legal challenge if his request to remove the prayer was defeated yesterday.
Cr Philippa Baker-Hogan said such a challenge would likely succeed, and the council could not afford to spend any more ratepayers' money on the issue, having already shelled out almost $24,000 in legal advice.
"Times change and traditions change. The time is right to make a pragmatic decision and move the prayer out of the agenda."
Cr Laws said he was a firm believer in the separation of church and state, and had wanted to remove the prayer when he was first elected mayor back in 2004.
But he voted against the resolution to remove it because the compromise of an informal prayer before each meeting was illogical.
"If this becomes a custom of the council, then the rationalists will still object."
Cr Allan Anderson, whose wife Rosemary wrote the council prayer, said the Christian community deserved recognition for all the services they provided the people of Whanganui. "Will council now tell our Maori community that they cannot say a karakia at citizenship meetings?"
Cr Sue Westwood said overturning the December resolution set a dangerous precedent. "I will retain the right to ask for every decision to be overturned if I don't like it."
The prayer has been on the council agenda since Wanganui District Council was formed in 1989.
Records show the Lord's Prayer was used by previous authorities that amalgamated to form the council.
It was replaced in May 2004 by a prayer written specifically for the city by Rosemary Anderson, wife of councillor Allan Anderson.
Wanganui District Council Prayer:
Eternal God, source of all wisdom; As we reflect upon all those good things that we enjoy in this city and district, help us to make and keep our community a good place to be for all who live and work here.
Grant that through our deliberations and decisions we will provide wise and positive leadership, seeking to solve problems effectively and justly, so that with courage and compassion, vision and energy, we may instil in our community aroha and harmony.
- The Dominion Post