Bideford Town Council has been holding prayers at the start of each meeting since the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First. Prayers are usually led by a local minister drawn from a variety of local denominations, including Quakers. The practice continued without objection for around four hundred years until 2007, when a Liberal Democrat councillor, Clive Bone, was elected. Although prayers took place before councillors’ attendance was recorded, and he was free to absent himself, or simply to observe without participating, he petitioned to have the tradition scrapped – unsuccessfully.
Having failed to get prayers scrapped by democratic means, Mr Bone instead turned to the Courts. Today, the High Court ruled that the Council’s longstanding traditional practice – replicated in county, town, borough and parish councils across the country – is illegal.
Surprisingly, perhaps, this was not down to either the Equality Act or the Human Rights Act. In fact, the judge specifically found that ‘the manner in which the practice is carried out does not infringe either Mr Bone’s human rights nor does it unlawfully discriminate indirectly on the grounds of his lack of religious belief’. The judge held, rightly, that it was the atheist councillor who was seeking a special rule to force others to accommodate his lack of belief rather than the other way round, and far from simply asserting his right to freedom of conscience was trying to deny other councillors’ their freedom to exercise theirs.
Rather the ruling was on a narrow technical point. The judge, sitting alone, found that councillors had not been authorised by the Local Government Act 1972 to say prayers, and accordingly had no right to do so; and what is more, had not been entitled to do so since at least 1972.
I am a governor of a small primary school in North London. I am also an atheist. Each meeting of the Governing Body begins with Christian prayers, usually led by the local vicar, himself a governor and parent. Like other non-Christian Governors, I have no difficulty sitting in silence while those governors who want to seek spiritual support ahead of our deliberations do so. Indeed, I suspect that other non-Christian governors find this moment of reflection a useful opportunity to compose themselves and focus on the business in hand – precisely the reason Bideford council put forward for retaining its tradition.
Unlike Mr Bone, however, I am not a secularist. I may not believe in God but I believe in religion, and I believe that organised religion plays a valuable role in society: church schools educate millions of our children; churches act as a focal point in local communities tackling social exclusion, addressing homelessness, and bringing diverse communities together. Indeed, it would be fair to say that churches are probably at the forefront of the Big Society.
We should be in no doubt about the motives of the secularists. They believe in a total separation of Church and State, as practised in the USA. The National Secular Society even objects to NHS hospitals hiring chaplains to minister to and provide comfort to the sick. But we are not the United States. We are a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, but religion continues to play a role in our public life. And I think the majority of people in the UK, most of who are not regular religious worshippers but identify with a particular religion nonetheless, appreciate and value that. And very often, it is religious minorities who appreciate it most of all – they do not fall into the trap of believing that the only way to accommodate religious pluralism is through state-sponsored atheism.
Secularists will not stop at council prayers. It is inevitable that there will be a challenge to the practice of beginning deliberations in both Houses of Parliament with Prayers. A challenge to prayers at school governors’ meetings is likely. Frankly, they will not be satisfied unless the next King – whose “passion for religious nonsense” the NSS ridicules – is crowned away from Westminster Abbey by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (indeed, I suspect that the NSS would rather see the monarch replaced by the Chief Justice). Buoyed by their victory, the secularists will now put pressure on local authorities to drop any religious content from official meetings. Bideford Town Council maybe unable to afford the cost of appealing this ruling so it is incumbent on central Government to act. Councils need definitive guidance on what is and isn’t permissible under the law.
The irony is that having won on a very narrow legal point and lost on the equalities and human rights arguments, the very provision behind the secularists’ victory could be scrapped within weeks. Once commenced, Eric Pickles’ Localism Act will confer on local authorities a ‘general power of competence’. Essentially, unless expressly prohibited from doing so elsewhere, councils will have the right to do anything which a natural person can do, overturning the logic of the 1972 Act which assumes that councils can do nothing unless expressly allowed. According to a tweet this morning by the Communities Secretary – this will include the right to pray. It should be brought into effect as soon as possible to settle the matter beyond doubt. And Eric should write to local councillors making clear that when he does so, prayers can go back on the agenda.