High Court Bans Prayers At Formal Council Meetings, Government Responds in Favor of Religion

Country: United Kingdom

Date of incident: February 21, 2012

The UK Government has written to all local councils in England, telling them that new laws restore their power to hold prayers at official meetings after the High Court had ruled that local councils have no lawful power to hold prayers during official business. The court case was initiated by the National Secular Society and a local atheist ex-councillor who sued Bideford Town Council in Devon for conducting prayers, a custom that had been in place since the 17th century.

An atheist town councilor, Mr. Clive Bone, complained and the NSS took the council to court, the claimants’ legal case rested on three arguments: that the prayers were discriminatory against atheist councilors, the prayers were a breach of human rights laws, and that the council had no lawful authority to hold prayers as part of its formal meetings. The judge rejected the first two arguments, but ruled: “The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a Council is not lawful under s111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue.” The Act does allow councils to do anything that “facilitates, or is conducive or is incidental” to a council’s functions, but Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that the saying of prayers at formal meetings does not fall within that provision. The court said that prayers could be said as long as councilors are not formally summoned to attend. The case has sparked an outcry, with supporters of freedom of religion saying they have had enough of aggressive secularists riding roughshod over the country’s traditions.  Britain has no formal legal separation of Church and State and the Church of England is the constitutionally established religion with the Queen as its head.

In February 2012, within days of the court’s decision, Bideford Town Council voted to appeal the decision and UK Secretary of State for Local Government Eric Pickles fast-tracked the commencement of new laws to overtake the court’s ruling and restore councils’ right to hold prayers.

The government’s circular said all major local authorities in England could continue to hold prayers at formal meetings if they wanted to. For smaller councils, such as Bideford, this is set to come into force by the end of March.

In the circular, Eric Pickles said Britain was “not strengthened by the secularization of civil life”, and: “For too long, the public sector has been used to marginalize and attack faith in public life, undermining the very foundations of the British nation. But this week, the tables have been turned.”

Sources: http://www.christian.org.uk/news/court-bans-prayers-at-formal-council-meetings/?e100212 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-16980025 http://www.christian.org.uk/news/council-at-centre-of-prayer-storm-votes-to-appeal/?e170212 http://www.christian.org.uk/news/prayer-ban-to-be-overturned-within-a-week/ http://www.christian.org.uk/news/cameron-and-bercow-back-prayers-in-the-commons/ http://www.christian.org.uk/news/council-prayers-mps-blast-preposterous-ruling/ http://www.christian.org.uk/news/telegraph-cartoonist-targets-ridiculous-council-prayer-ban/ Podcasts: http://www.christianconcern.com/media/bbc-five-live-andrew-marsh-discusses-bideford-judgment http://www.christianconcern.com/media/bbc-berkshire-andrea-williams-debates-terry-sanderson-on-bideford-judgment Drawing by The Daily Telegraph’s cartoonist Matt: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/matt/?cartoon=9080677&cc=9053108

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