Atheist victory on council prayers

 

Christians and politicians reacted with dismay as the High Court today outlawed the centuries-old tradition of formal prayers being said at the start of local council meetings up and down the country.

The National Secular Society and an atheist ex-councillor won a test case ruling that Bideford town council, Devon, was acting unlawfully by putting prayer on meeting agendas.

It is understood the ritual dates back in Bideford to the days of Queen Elizabeth I, and the council has recently voted twice to retain it.

But Mr Justice Ouseley, sitting in London, ruled local councils lacked power under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 to hold prayers "as part of a formal local authority meeting".

However it was lawful for prayers to be said "in a local authority chamber before a formal meeting", provided councillors were not "formally summoned to attend".

He added: "I do not think that the 1972 Act dealing with the organisation, management and decision-making of local councils should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of councillors, however sincere or large its number, to exclude or, even to a modest extent, impose burdens on or mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression.

"They are all equally-elected councillors."

The council said its last formal prayers on the eve of the judgment. The brief ritual took the form of "two minutes of reflective silence" conducted by a Quaker.

Acknowledging the widespread importance of a decision that surprised many, the judge gave the council permission to appeal.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles described it as "surprising and disappointing" - and queried whether the judge had got the law right.

Mr Pickles said: "Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation.

"The Localism Act now gives councils a general power of competence - which allows them to undertake any general action that an individual could do unless it is specifically prohibited by law. Logically, this includes prayers before meetings."

Sir Merrick Cockell, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: "It is the LGA's view that this ruling will be overridden by the 'general power of competence' as soon as the legislation comes into force and that it remains the decision of local authorities if they wish to hold prayers during formal meetings."

The general power of competence is part of the Localism Act and is designed to give local authorities the legal capacity to do anything an individual can do that is not specifically prohibited by law.

Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, said: "Prayers have been a part of council meetings for centuries, and many people, either for religious reasons or cultural reasons, see them as a positive part of our national life.

"It's a shame the courts have taken sides with those whose goal is to undermine our Christian heritage."

He called on Parliament to "stop this assault upon our national heritage".

But the judgment affecting councils all over England and Wales was welcomed by the National Secular Society as "an important victory for everyone who wants a secular society that neither advantages nor disadvantages people because of their religion or lack of it."

Keith Porteous Wood, the society's executive director, said: "There is no longer a respectable argument that Britain is a solely Christian nation, or even a religious one."

He said: "An increasing proportion of people are not practising any religion, and minority faiths are growing in number and influence."

Prayers had been the cause of tension in a number of multi-faith local councils.

The legal challenge was launched in July 2010 after the National Secular Society was contacted by Clive Bone - a non-believer who was then a Bideford councillor.

Mr Bone later left the council because of its "refusal to adjust" its prayer policy, which caused him embarrassment.

In court, the secularists' argument included assertions that prayers breached equality laws and articles nine and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect an individual's right to freedom of conscience and not to face discrimination.

But the judge rejected the human rights and equality challenges. He ruled formal prayers were only unlawful because the council lacked the statutory power to put them on the agenda.

Bideford town clerk Heather Blackburn later expressed "surprise and disappointment" and said an appeal was being considered.

The Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Rev Michael Langrish, condemned the ruling.

He told the BBC: "Every time there is a survey of religious beliefs in this country, around 70% of the population profess a faith and to saying private prayers.

"At the House of Lords we began with prayers this morning. Prayers were said by a considerable amount of peers. I don't think you will find anyone in the House of Lords who will seriously suggest we should end that practice."

Harry Greenway, a former Tory MP and ex-chairman of the National Prayer Breakfast, said: "I trust this ruling will be quickly reversed. If people do not want to attend prayers of this nature, they can stay away instead of meddling and busybodying with other people's beliefs.

"If they did away with daily prayers in the House of Commons - and I would not be surprised if an attempt is made to do that - there would be a revolution.

"Non-believers are not harassed in this way by believers. Why cannot the non-believers show the same kind of tolerance? I find this ruling puzzling in the extreme."

A spokesman for the Equality and Human Rights Commission said: "We note that the human rights arguments in this case have been rejected by the judge.

"We think it unfortunate that a compromise couldn't be reached on this matter, without resorting to legal action."

PA

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker