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10 February 2012

Council prayer ban "outrageous" and "undemocratic"

Council prayer ban "outrageous" and "undemocratic"

The ban on Bideford council saying prayers before their meetings is "outrageous" and "undemocratic", the Alliance's advocacy director has said.

In a high court ruling on Friday (10 February), Mr Justice Ouseley said Bideford Town Council in Devon had no statutory powers to hold prayers before council meetings as it has been doing for years.

Lawyers from the National Secular Society (NSS) had argued that the saying of prayers "indirectly discriminated against" the non-religious and was in breach of human rights laws. However, the judge rejected these claims but agreed that it contravened local government legislation.

The ruling could now affect the many councils that do hold prayers as part of their proceedings, following the verdict which focused on the Local Government Act 1972.

Justice Ouseley said: "A local authority has no powers under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 to hold prayers as part of a formal local authority meeting or to summon councillors to such a meeting at which prayers are on the agenda.

"The saying of prayers in a local authority chamber before a formal meeting of such a body is lawful provided councillors are not formally summoned to attend."

NSS brought the case after Bideford councillor Clive Bone made a complaint about the prayers. Mr Bone had felt "uncomfortable at having to sit through prayers, homilies and requests for diving guidance while carrying out his formal duties as an elected councillor".

The organisation's chief executive Keith Porteous Wood said: "We are delighted that the court has decided to make a ringingly secular decision, which will make the saying of prayers of whatever religion unlawful in local councils.

"This will mean no-one will be disadvantaged or feel uncomfortable in performing their duties as a councillor in meetings."

Dr Dave Landrum, director of advocacy for Evangelical Alliance, said: "All over the world prayer is recognised as an important part of civil society, and it has historically been seen as an important part of our social fabric in the UK. We need to be aware that this outrageous decision was not based on human rights or discrimination, but on a legal technicality. Also, the fact that Bideford Council has twice recently voted to keep the prayers also shows how undemocratic and unsustainable this judgement is.

"It's sad that very, very small groups of secularist extremists can challenge the local and national culture that we all enjoy in the UK. We should all be vocal in our desire to see this overturned on appeal. Not least because we are in times when our towns and cities really do need prayer."

Communities secretary Eric Pickles said he was disappointed and surprised by the ruling. "While welcoming and respecting fellow British citizens who belong to other faiths, we are a Christian country, with an established Church in England, governed by the Queen.

"Christianity plays san important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. Public authorities - be it Parliament or a parish council - should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish.

"The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty. 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."