Pickles overturns ban on council prayers

The legal wrangle highlights the need for an unambiguous separation between church and state.

After a week of absurd headlines declaring that "militant secularism" is endangering religion, Eric Pickles has acted to overturn the High Court ruling against council prayers. The Communities Secretary rushed through the implementation of "a general power of competence", which allows councils to do anything an individual can unless specifically prohibited by law.

Pickles declared:

By effectively reversing (the High Court's) illiberal ruling, we are striking a blow for localism over central interference, for freedom to worship over intolerant secularism, for parliamentary sovereignty over judicial activism, and for long-standing British liberties over modern-day political correctness.

The National Secular Society, which launched the legal challenge to council prayers, has responded by questioning the legality of Pickles's actions,

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS, commented:

A number of senior lawyers have expressed doubt whether the Localism Act will, as Mr Pickles hopes, make prayers lawful, and the Act was clearly not passed with that express intention. His powers to pass legislation are not, as he implies, untrammelled. Council prayers increasingly look set to become a battle between the government and the courts at ever higher levels.

The legal ambiguity points to the need for a clear and unequivocal separation between church and state. Religious believers who oppose such a move should look to the US, where faith has flourished despite the country's secular constitution (the legal basis for the ban on school prayers).

Indeed, in an interview with the New Statesman in 2008, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, (who went on to famously guest-edit the magazine) suggested that the church might benefit from such a move:

I can see that it's by no means the end of the world if the establishment disappears. The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh synod, it didn't have to be nodded through by parliament afterwards. There is a certain integrity to that.

In an increasingly atheistic and multi-faith society, a secular state, which protects all religions and privileges none, is a model to embrace. Now is as good a time as any to do so.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.