By Paul Goodman
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The human rights and equality challenges of former Liberal Democrat councillor Clive Bone failed in court yesterday. I will repeat that sentence. The human rights and equality challenges of former Liberal Democrat councillor Clive Bone failed in court yesterday. The point has not been all that easy to spot amidst reporting of the verdict on his legal challenge, which unsurprisingly projected the most newsworthy part of it – namely, that the judge ruled that prayers in council meetings are now banned.
He did so because he concluded that local authorities had no power to "say prayers or to have any period of quiet reflection as part of the business of the council" – because of a technicality in the Local Government Act 1972, a point that Nadine Dorries noted in her column on this site this morning. Eric Pickles has said that the Localism Act will empower councils to hold prayers and indicated that the judgement is therefore mistaken. (The judge gave Bideford Council, which held the prayers in question, permission to appeal.)
Cranmer points out this morning that the new act will protect Islamic prayers at the start of council meetings as much as Christian ones, and indicates that this fact sits awkardly with David Cameron's proclamation that this is a Christian country "and we should not be afraid to say so". I have made contact with the disembodied presence of His Grace, and his spectral voice has informed me that the custom of Christian prayers at the start of council meetings isn't written into law.
It follows that councils could have held Islamic prayers if they wished before the court ruling, so the Localism Act isn't sneaking some new dispensation onto the statute book. I am not a lawyer, but would have thought that a brisk amendment to the 1972 Act, in combination with the Localism Act, would be enough to turn the tables on Mr Bone – a swift belt-and-braces exercise. Councils would then be free to revert to their former practice. A warning, though: one never, never knows what judges will choose to do when human rights are on the menu.