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Joan Smith

Joan Smith: Believe it or not, prayer has no place in democracy

Imagine that you're at the dentist. You discuss the treatment, settle back in the chair, open your mouth – and the dentist announces she's invited the vicar to say prayers before proceeding. Wouldn't that seem weird, not to say annoying and inappropriate? A dentist's surgery is not a place of worship and neither is a council chamber, despite all the hot air that's been generated in the past few days about the "right" of believers to hold prayers during council meetings.

Entertaining though this is – I think God needs someone else to do his PR, instead of relying on Eric Pickles, Baroness Warsi and the Daily Mail – this isn't an argument about believers' human rights. It's about religious people expecting to hold on to privileges they can't justify, except by saying they've enjoyed them since time immemorial. Are they seriously claiming Christianity is under threat because a court ruled that prayers can't be an agenda item at council meetings? Now Pickles claims he's overturned the ruling. As the American satirist Jon Stewart said last week in a different context: "You've confused the war on your religion with not always getting everything you want."

We secularists – and some secularists are believers – get the difference. The Bideford council case wasn't about an atheist councillor demanding to assert his non-belief in front of religious colleagues, any more than I insist that the historic oppression of women should be part of the official business at any meeting I attend. (Now, there's an idea.) It's about the principle that civic space is secular, which means not having special rules for one set of beliefs.

Modern democracies are made up of millions of individuals who are entitled to believe what they like, as long as they obey the law and don't discriminate against people they dislike. That's been the central issue in a slew of legal cases brought by religious organisations and individuals; in a not exactly shining example of Christian charity, the Catholic Church has closed its adoption agencies in England rather than obey a law that says they can't turn away prospective parents who happen to be gay. The head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, entered the debate last week, bluntly telling faith groups that provide public services that they can't say they're entitled to a different set of laws from everyone else.

Phillips compared Christians who don't want to observe equality laws with Muslims who want to impose sharia, prompting a furious reaction. But the principle that secular law trumps religious belief is absolutely right; it's a bulwark against religious intolerance, and sorely needed in a country where belief still enjoys far too many privileges. It's bizarre that Christian prayers are still said at the start of parliamentary business; there's a daily stampede of peers arriving late in the Lords, struggling to get a seat because they've waited until prayers are over. Are Christians entitled to the best seats? And if it is under attack, why are my taxes funding so many "faith" schools?

Whenever I hear the phrase "militant secularism", I know that someone, somewhere, isn't getting their own way. It means we're moving towards a society which is less hierarchical, more open and tolerant, and where everyone has exactly the same rights. Now there's something I'm militantly in favour of, like the very best chocolate and expensive shoes.

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