Council prayers challenged

  • post Type / Members and partners
  • Date / 6 December 2011

Public prayer will no longer be part of local authority council meetings in England and Wales, if the National Secular Society (NSS) wins a case that began at the High Court on Friday, 2 December. About half of local government councils in England say prayers as part of their meetings.

The NSS, a British member organization of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), took Bideford Town Council in Devon to court after it received a complaint from one of its councillors, Clive Bone. Councillor Bone said that as a non-believer he was disadvantaged and embarrassed by the saying of prayers as part of council business. He has either to sit through them in silence or leave the room without permission of the Mayor. As a compromise he had suggested that council meetings start with a period of silence for private prayer or reflection, but the Council refused to change its prayer practice.

The High Court is one of the highest courts in the land. If the NSS wins the case, the High Court ruling will affect the practice of prayers at council meetings across all of England and Wales. A survey of local authorities carried out by the NSS showed that something like half of councils in England include prayers as part of their proceedings.

In its case before the court, the NSS contends that the saying of Christian prayers in what should be a secular environment concerned with civic business is inappropriate and could deter people of other religions and no religion from taking part in an important democratic activity.

The hearing on Friday lasted about 5 hours. For about two hours, the NSS counsel David Wolfe set out the case against council prayers, with occasional interventions from the judge, Mr Justice Ouseley. Mr Wolfe put forward three main grounds for the claim that the Council’s prayer practice is unlawful:

  1. It is unjustified (and thus unlawful) indirect discrimination against persons of no religion; and
  2. It is incompatible with Articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights (freedom of religion/conscience and non-discrimination); and/or
  3. It is ultra vires (outside the powers of) the Council.

Keith Porteous Wood, NSS executive director, said: “We are not seeking to deny anybody the right to pray, but we are challenging the appropriateness of prayers being conducted during council meetings. The council chamber and council proceedings should be equally welcoming to everyone living in the local community, and should therefore be a religiously neutral and secular place. Prayers should not be foisted on others serving the community as councillors. Those who feel it is necessary to ask for divine guidance before engaging in council business should do so privately outside the meeting or silently in the council chamber.

“Part of the Council’s defence is that the prayers aid cohesion, despite this dispute over several years in which this councillor and others have sought to have prayers removed from the council meeting agenda.

“Nor is Bideford the only place where prayers have impeded cohesion rather than contributing to it. A Christian councillor has been reported walking out of Portsmouth council meeting when a Muslim prayer was read out, and we know of disquiet in other councils over prayers. This kind of conflict is unnecessary but will be increasingly common as our society diversifies even further, yet Bideford persists in claiming prayers promote cohesion.”

More information on the NSS campaign against council prayers is available at: http://www.secularism.org.uk/council-prayers.html

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