Bideford Town Council hasn't a prayer

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

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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.

Belief, disbelief and beyond belief