A court ruling has declared the practice of saying prayers at the start of Council meetings to be unlawful.
After a legal challenge brought by Clive Bone to Bideford Town Council, Mr Justice Ouseley ruled:
''The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a council is not lawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue.''
The logic of the ruling seems to be that saying prayers is not necessary for a council to fulfil its statutory requirements and therefore not something a council has the legal power to undertake. But the Government believe the ruling has failed to take into account the Localism Act, which supersedes the Local Government Act. The Localism Act provides a general power of competence. In any event my understanding is that if necessary the Government will bring in whatever legal clarification might be needed to ensure prayers can take place. The principle is important. What would stop a group of republicans challenging a council from celebrating the Diamond Jubillee?
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government said:
"This ruling is surprising and disappointing.
"While welcoming and respecting fellow British citizens who belong to other faiths, we are a Christian country, with an established Church in England, governed by the Queen.
"Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. Public authorities – be it Parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings
if they wish.
"The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty.
"The Localism Act now gives councils a general power of competence – which allows them to undertake any general action that an individual could do unless it is specifically prohibited by law. Logically, this includes prayers before meetings."