Legal bid to stop council prayers

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The Independent Online

A campaign group is going to court to try to stop a council's "archaic practice" of holding prayers before meetings.

The National Secular Society (NSS) has instructed a solicitor to take its battle with Bideford Town Council, in Devon, to the High Court, claiming the policy breaches human rights.

The litigation comes after atheist councillor Clive Bone raised objections to the prayers being integrated into proceedings.

Holding prayers before council meetings is "not appropriate in modern-day Britain" and may even be putting off potential members, the NSS believes.

It argues that formal recitation of prayers at the meetings breaches Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which protects freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Now the group is seeking a judicial review to settle the issue.

NSS executive director Keith Porteous-Wood said today: "We've instructed our solicitor to go the High Court.

"We had a complaint from a Bideford councillor (Mr Bone) about the prayers. He's an atheist and found it embarassing and inappropriate that this should be an integral part of the meeting."

Writing on the NSS website, he explained: "The councillor objects to being subjected to prayers, or having to leave the chamber while they are said. Elected councillors of public bodies should not be put in such an uncomfortable and embarrassing position. The council's purpose is to provide local services, not church services.

"The councillor is aware of potential councillors who are put off becoming candidates because of this archaic practice. The practice is therefore interfering with operation of local democracy.

"There is a chronic shortage of candidates and unnecessary obstacles to new councillors should be discouraged.

"It is nonsense to claim that the rights of councillors to manifest their religion would be restricted if the review is successful.

"Councillors can, like anyone else, go to church or pray at home whenever they wish, and indeed we do not have a problem with them praying separately before or after council meetings.

"But it is not appropriate in modern-day Britain for prayers to form an integral part of the council meeting."

Letters written to the council, claiming that the prayers are illegal, have not changed its attitude, leaving the NSS to take legal action, he said.

A win in the High Court would set a precedent as thousands of other councils also say prayers before their meetings, he added.

Similar issues with pre-meeting prayers have arisen at Wellington Council, Shropshire, Torbay Council, in Devon, and at Whaley Bridge, in Derbyshire.