Added at 8pm on Sunday, Pickles video:
Eric Pickles has written to councils to confirm that the general power of competence in the Localism Act includes the legal right to say prayers at the start of their meetings. This guidance is felt to effectively overturn the court ban on prayers last week. Remember you read it first here.
“Last week’s case should be seen as a wake-up call.
“For too long, the public sector has been used to marginalise and attack faith in public life, undermining the very foundations of the British nation. But this week, the tables have been turned.
“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 situation for the National Secular Society looks hopeless. Keith Porteous Wood, their Executive Director says:
"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.
"We are not the aggressors; our compromises of a period of silent reflection in the meetings, or prayers before them, were rejected. Does Mr Pickles believe his powers permit Muslim, Moonie, Scientology and Wicca prayers too?"
I rather doubt that councillors hoping to win elections would invite along Moonies or Scientologists to open their proceedings. But in so far as atheist councillors walk out I suspect they would be less likely to do so if a rabbi or an iman were leading proceedings.
The National Secular Society has goofed. This row will increase rather than reduce the amount of prayers being said in Council Chambers. If a further legal challenge is upheld then the Government will change the law to uphold freedom of worship. Mr Porteous Wood and his supporters should seek the democratic route. Let them stand for election as councillors and with a majority decide not to hold prayers. Or let them stand for Parliament and get a majority to pass a national ban. But they are not going to get anywhere with these perverse legal challenges.