Praying for an end to prayers

Are council prayers discriminatory, or just local democracy in action?

Are council prayers discriminatory, or just local democracy in action?

As living standards atrophy and the collapse of the eurozone becomes every day a little less unthinkable, it may seem trivial in the extreme to be arguing about whether or not the mayor of a small town in Devon should be called upon to say a prayer before the start of council meetings. Yet for the National Secular Society (NSS) it would seem to be a big deal. As their legal challenge is heard in the High Court, the NSS believes its case against Bideford council to be an issue that "goes to the very heart of secularism in public life and, if successful, will set a key country-wide precedent."

The law, declares the NSS in a press release, "is not made in Bideford". But whichever way the decision goes, Bideford will decide the law. The NSS estimates that half of all local councils in Britain begin their proceedings with prayers, usually of a Christian character. It's a custom that they're determined to see brought to an end. A document published on the NSS website calls both for donations to a fighting fund and for a pro-active campaign to root out instances of coucil prayer. Supporters are urged to find out if their local council begins its meetings with prayers -- and, if so, to complain to the council and to the local press ("the local media are always looking for stories, particularly those with a specific community angle") and to take part in radio phone-ins.

Feelings are running equally high on the other side. Last year when the NSS's legal challenge was first announced, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, claimed that the "centuries-long tradition of saying of prayers before council meetings" was "an acknowledgment of the important role the Christian faith plays in civic life". (This may be why the NSS finds them so objectionable, of course.) He condemned the lawsuit as "an attack on freedom and a cynical manoeuvre to drive public expressions of faith from national as well as local life." A local bishop went so far as to claim that council prayers formed "an integral part of the British system of government".

Bideford council is being represented by a firm of solicitors closely linked to the campaign group the Christian Institute. The firm has acted in a number of high profile cases -- most recently that of Adrian Smith, demoted by Trafford Housing Trust for objecting to gay marriage on his private Facebook account.

But the roots of the Bideford case are also local, particular and long-standing. At its centre is Councillor Clive Bone, who has been trying to get prayers abolished for more than three years. His attempt in 2008 to replace them with a moment of silent contemplation was defeated by nine votes to four. Bone claims that the practice is divisive, embarrassing and that he was aware of potential councillors who put off standing for election by the prospect of having to sit through prayers. According to the NSS, "prayers make him uncomfortable and he feels embarrassed and awkward as the public act of worship is practised". He objects to having to choose between "participating" or leaving the room, or else arriving late. Holding prayers "creates a feeling of exclusion for him and some other councillors," which has led him not to seek re-election.

I can well understand non-religious councillors finding prayers to be boring and unnecessary. The NSS may have a case in law. They report that the National Association of Local Councils shares their analysis that council prayers may be considered discriminatory. They certainly have a good case in logic. I would worry about any councillor who seriously believed that they required divine guidance before making decisions about some local planning application. And prayers at the start of meetings are likely to produce embarrassed shuffling of feet among non-believing councillors.

To impose prayers by majority vote upon council members who actively object to them strikes me as insensitive and less than wholly Christian. In Bideford itself, the controversy seems to have produced a poisonous atmosphere on the council that can hardly have been conducive to good local government; still less to the "cohesion" that was claimed to be the purpose of the prayers. There's more common sense on display in Gloucester, where to the NSS's delight council prayers have this week been abolished.

And yet I can't help thinking that high court judges have more pressing calls on their time, and more expertise than micromanaging how proceedings should be initiated in council chambers up and down the country. It's not as if -- as with religious school assemblies -- council prayers are compulsory, and for the National Secular Society to argue that it they represent a key front in the wider battle against religious domination of public life is as absurd as their opponents' contention that they are essential to maintaining the country's Christian foundation. In reality, the issue represents yet another opportunity for two legally-obsessed pressure groups to go head-to-head -- a depressingly recurrent feature of our modern human rights culture. Sometimes the law is best made in Bideford.

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I'm a Remain voter who feels optimistic about Brexit - here's why

Take back control is more than just a slogan. 

Most politics geeks have found themselves deliciously sucked into a soap opera over the last few days. It’s fast-paced, personality-based and ripe for speculation. But underneath it all, the deeper, harder questions remain – what does Brexit look like, and how can we make it work?

When news of Leave’s victory broke in the early hours of Friday morning (is it possible that was just a week ago?) I felt like the only Remain voter who had some kind of optimism. Fellow Remainers still reeling from the result berate me for it, but I continue to find two reasons for hope.

First, leaving gives us a chance to build a different type of economy. I don’t wish to belittle the recent economic fallout, but with the right leadership and negotiations, we could use this moment to push for an increase in trade with the Commonwealth and beyond. A fall in the pound will disappoint many, but it could help with a much needed rebalancing of our economy, moving from one predominantly based on financial services in London to manufacturing across the regions. 

Second – and perhaps more importantly – leaving is a chance to rebuild our politics. For too long, millions of people in this country have felt ignored or exploited by those who call themselves democratic leaders. In protest, they have left mainstream parties to join UKIP or the hordes of non-voters. In winning this referendum, they have finally been listened to. Perhaps the pressure cooker of discontent can finally be taken off the boil. Perhaps parties can use this result as a chance to rebuild trust and shake up some of our other institutions that are badly in need of reform. 

This point was really brought home to me by a student in the school where I teach. The morning of the referendum she told me that she didn’t think we’d leave the EU, even if the people voted for it. Her friends agreed, saying it was “weird you have to vote in pencil”. They were scared the people’s voice could so easily be rubbed out. When I saw her the next day, a small part of me was relieved that these students had seen that people can genuinely trump the establishment. 

If you’re not convinced, just imagine the backlash if Remain had won by a point or two. We almost certainly would then have voted in an extremely right-wing government, much the same way that the SNP saw a boost after they lost the independence referendum last year. 

Of course, a positive path for Brexit is far from guaranteed. Any leader that goes back on the vote, or tries to fudge it by saying that open borders are a price worth paying, is going to do worse than plummet in the polls - they are going to undermine our entire democracy. And a whole generation’s trust in politicians is already dangerously low.

But this doesn’t have to be a moment for the right. Good leaders understand that Leave’s “take back control” message was about a genuine concern with our borders. Great leaders will acknowledge that it also reflected a deeper concern about the need for agency. They understand the vote was a rejection of a neoliberal approach to the economy that fails to make space for well-paid work, family and community.

The public voted for decreased pressure on public services and a Britain that would negotiate as hard in India as it would in Germany for trade deals. They voted to end a perceived overcentralisation of power by elites, and create a more democratic Britain that gives more dignity to its people. I might not have believed that leaving the EU was the best way to achieve these things, but I’m on the left because I believe we are best placed to make these desires real.  

The vote to Leave or Remain was a binary decision. But Brexit is not. What type of path we take now depends entirely on the direction we choose, and the perseverance we show along the way.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham