Prayers In English Councils: Public Debate Statements and Government Circular

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 conducted prayers. Read here statements of public officials in favor of the religious practice dating back to the 17th century.

In December 2011, the head of the Equality Commission, Trevor Phillips, said he ‘dropped his coffee’ when he heard the case was being taken to court, calling it “nonsense on stilts”. Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda, branded the ruling as “utterly preposterous”, and said that he would “consider” tabling a bill to oppose the ruling himself. Conservative MP Tim Loughton said: “If you don’t like prayers at council meetings don’t go to them – simples. But don’t spoil it for the majority who do appreciate it”. The Bishop of Exeter, the Right Reverend Michael Langrish, said: “I think it’s a great pity that a tiny minority are seeking to ban the majority, many of whom find prayers very, very helpful, from continuing with a process in which no-one actually has to participate.” The Prime Minister and the Speaker of the House of Commons have backed prayers in the Commons. A source said the Prime Minister “thinks that the prayer sessions are very important and that we should keep them”. Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, called the ruling “surprising and disappointing” and the case “ludicrous” and has vowed that the government will oppose it. He said, “Public authorities - be it Parliament or a parish council - should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish.” He has vowed to overturn a judge’s ban on formal council prayers – within a week if possible. On Friday Mr Pickles told BBC Five Live: “This change was due to be in by the beginning of April, but I’ve talked to officials and I hope to have the law changed by the end of the month, and it’s my aim to actually change it by this time next week. It will mean that they will be able to continue, as councils have for decades if not centuries, been able to have a prayer before the start of their meeting and for it to be part of the agenda.” In the government communication allowing prayer in council meetings in February 2012, 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: