Bideford Town Council hasn't a prayer

The High Court has ruled that local councils can't have prayers on the agenda.

The National Secular Society has won a Judicial Review against Bideford Town Council's practice of holding prayers as part of its formal proceedings. Mr Justice Ouseley, leading judge of the Administrative Division of the High Court, today ruled that the 1972 Local Government Act did not give councils the power to introduce a religious dimension to their meetings.

The judge didn't decide that having to sit through prayers amounted to a breach of atheist councillors' human rights, as the NSS had argued, or to unlawful discrimination. A crucial part of his reasoning was that because the prayers were optional -- any councillor who objected was free to leave -- they couldn't be considered an integral part of council business. In that sense it was a very technical ruling. But he did suggest that it might impose unacceptable "burdens" on some representatives, marking them out or excluding them from their role as "equally elected councillors".

"Still, a win is a win" was the instant reaction from Dr Evan Harris, the former Lib Dem MP and secularist campaigner. Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, was perhaps more effusive. "Acts of worship in council meetings are key to the separation of religion from politics," he said, "So we're very pleased with the judgement, and the clear secular message it sends."

As for the Christian Institute, the evangelical pressure-group that had backed Bideford Council, its spokesman Simon Calvert called the ruling "extraordinary" and wondered if councils were now also banned from beginning council meetings with the national anthem or offering congratulations to the Queen on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee.

The decision has also been attacked on Twitter by local government minister Eric Pickles. He suggested that "the right to worship is a fundamental and hard fought British liberty" (but then what of the right not to worship?). More intriguingly, he claimed that under the new Localism Act, which comes into force today, councils have a power of general competence: "Logically this includes ability to pray before meetings."

So it's far from over yet.

In the key passage highlighted by the NSS in its initial response to the ruling, Mr Justice Ouseley declared:

I do not think the 1972 Act [...] should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of councillors, however sincere or large in number, to exclude, or even to a modest extent, to impose burdens on or even to mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression of them. They are all equally elected councillors.

For around seventy years it has been the practice -- regular if not strictly adhered to or laid down in any regulation -- for the mayor to invite prayers to be said before council meetings in Bideford. The current row has been going on since Clive Bone, who brought the complaint with the aid of the National Secular Society, was elected to the council in 2007. The judicial review was brought last year despite the fact that Bone was no longer a councillor. His departure was, it seems, at least partly due to his unhappiness over the prayer issue and the poisonous atmosphere the row had created.

In November 2008, the Standards Board for England rejected an earlier complaint by Devon humanists. The board did "not think that for a council to have prayers is a breach of any of the relevant equality legislation". It added that "It is a decision for the council how it conducts its business and any change to that needs to be addressed by changing the governance arrangements with the consent of the majority of the council."

The following year the new mayor, Andy Powell, declined to appoint a chaplain and replaced the pre-meeting prayers with a period of silence which he described as "a mutual solution to the subject of religion in our chambers." But the prayers were later restored, prompting the legal action. The current practice is for the mayor to invite a local cleric to say a prayer at the start of meetings. Occasionally, a local representative of the Quakers leads a "moment of reflection" instead. Sometimes the mayor calls for a minute's silence instead of prayers.

Since it was based on the fairly narrow grounds of the Local Government Act, the case is unlikely to have the wide-ranging application that some have suggested. It does not threaten daily prayers in the House of Commons, for example: Parliament is not subject to the provisions of the Local Government Act. Nor will it prevent councillors' involvement in remembrance or Christmas carol services. Even the NSS says it has no objection to prayers being said before council meetings (though how long before remains a moot point). The point being contested was, arguably, a fairly trivial one: whether prayers could be an item on the formal council agenda. Trevor Phillips dismissed the case as "nonsense on stilts". But on such narrow points great questions of principle sometimes hang.

The most obvious outcome of today's ruling is that the understanding of the law set out in the Standards Board's response to the earlier complaint must be revised. Defending the NSS's decision to bring the case, despite the wish of a majority of local councillors to have prayers at their meetings, Keith Porteous Wood declared that "the law is not made in Bideford". But it would seem that the law has indeed been made in Bideford, at least pending a probably inevitable appeal.

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There are two sides to the Muslim segregation story

White families must also be prepared to have Muslim neighbours. 

Dame Louise Casey finally published her review on social integration in Britain. Although it mentions all communities, there is a clear focus on Muslim communities. However, the issues she raises - religious conservatism, segregation in some areas and Muslim women experiencing inequalities -  are not new. In this case, they have been placed in one report and discussed in the context of hindering integration. If we are truly committed to addressing these issues, though, we have a duty of care to discuss the findings with nuance, not take them out of context, as some tabloids have already done.

The review, for example, highlights that in some areas Muslims make up 85 per cent of the local population. This should not be interpreted to mean that Muslims are choosing to isolate themselves and not integrate. For a start, the review makes it clear that there are also certain areas in Britain that are predominantly Sikh, Hindu or Jewish.

Secondly, when migrants arrive in the UK, it is not unreasonable for them to gravitate towards people from similar cultural and faith backgrounds.  Later, they may choose to remain in these same areas due to convenience, such as being able to buy their own food, accessing their place of worship or being near elderly relatives.

However, very little, if any, attention is given to the role played by white families in creating segregated communities. These families moved out of such areas after the arrival of ethnic minorities. This isn't necessarily due to racism, but because such families are able to afford to move up the housing ladder. And when they do move, perhaps they feel more comfortable living with people of a similar background to themselves. Again, this is understandable, but it highlights that segregation is a two-way street. Such a phenomenon cannot be prevented or reversed unless white families are also willing to have Muslim neighbours. Is the government also prepared to have these difficult conversations?

Casey also mentions inequalities that are holding some Muslim women back, inequalities driven by misogyny, cultural abuses, not being able to speak English and the high numbers of Muslim women who are economically inactive. It’s true that the English language is a strong enabler of integration. It can help women engage better with their children, have access to services and the jobs market, and be better informed about their rights.

Nevertheless, we should remember that first-generation Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, who could not speak English, have proved perfectly able to bring up children now employed in a vast range of professions including politics, medicine, and the law. The cultural abuses mentioned in the review such as forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation, are already being tackled by government. It would be more valuable to see the government challenge the hate crimes and discrimination regularly faced by Muslim women when trying to access public services and the jobs market. 

The review recommends an "Oath of Integration with British Values and Society" for immigrants on arrival. This raises the perennial question of what "British Values" are. The Casey review uses the list from the government’s counter-extremism strategy. In reality, the vast majority of individuals, regardless of faith or ethnic background, would agree to sign up to them.  The key challenge for any integration strategy is to persuade all groups to practice these values every day, rather than just getting immigrants to read them out once. 

Shaista Gohir is the chair of Muslim Women's Network UK, and Sophie Garner is the general secretary and a barrister.