Saturday, February 11, 2012

Praying is Fine, Just Don't Put it on the Agenda: Bideford Links

Update: with spectacularly good timing, a new form of prayer for use in Council meetings has just been published.

Lots of pixels spilled over the Bideford judgement in the last 24 hours, here are a few links:

The original court judgement, finding that making prayers part of official council business is 'not lawful'

Heresy Corner: good piece, noting that the judgement was based on what powers a council does and doesn't have, and not on any supposed violation of human rights. The judge was also careful to spell out that the judgement doesn't automatically entail similar conclusions on other Christendom legacy events (e.g. Remembrance Day)

Steve Tilley isn't too flustered, "it is a matter of common courtesy to ask permission before you pray"

Cranmer quotes Eric Pickles at length, who opposes the judgement and argues that new localism powers would enable councils to overturn it.

Thinking Anglicans has a good roundup of the main news coverage.

The Beaker Folk note another problem closer to home.

The BBC report makes it plain that the NSS failed to get prayers declared as a breach of human rights:
The NSS, which said prayers had no place in "a secular environment concerned with civic business", argued the "inappropriate" ritual breached articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect an individual's right to freedom of conscience and not to face discrimination.

However, the case was not won on human rights grounds but on a point of statutory construction of local government legislation.

So whilst the National Secular Society are bouncing up and down in public, their 'victory' is pretty minor. Change one line of the 1972 local authority legislation, and we're back where we started. It's this argument that has the most implications, and the fact that it didn't carry in court is a major setback to the NSS.Me? This is clearly part of the wider campaign by the NSS to exclude religion from public life, a point well made by Michael Langrish as he toured the news studios yesterday. In the end it turns on a point of process, rather than of rights. Councils can still pray, they just shouldn't put it on the official business to which all members are summoned. I remember being pleasantly suprised to find that our local town council had a chaplain and had prayers at the start of meetings - but I'm with Steve Tilley, it should be voluntary, as prayers are in the House of Commons.

I don't know if the NSS have the cash to bring cases like these to small district councils across the country, or whether the police will have better things to do with their time than descend on councils waving illegal agenda papers to arrest them half way through the Lords Prayer.

In the end, surely councils should be free to decide whether they pray or not? It shouldn't be for a judge to hand down a judgement for them all to follow. Hopefully the localism stuff from the government will allow a bit of common sense.

On other local stuff, there's more on the continuing saga at Somerton Town Council, local blog here.


  1. If you read the judgement it is actually a truly bizarre case. The NSS acknowledged in their argument that it would be fine for councils to start their meetings, take apologies for absence, then adjourn for ten minutes to pray, then restart the meeting afterwards. What on earth has the world come to when this is considered a good use of everyone's time and energy.

  2. There's been a similar kerfuffle in Yeovil Town Council with two former councillors objecting to the presence of official prayers. Because the two councillors had to leave the council chamber while the prayers were being said, they felt that the majority in the council were excluding them.

    As a thought experiment, how would you react if you were a town councillor and at the start of each meeting there were Islamic prayers? Would you join in, sit in silence or leave the room?

    If the prayers are prior to the meeting, then any councillors who do not wish to pray can turn up to the meeting at the start and after those that wish to get their prayers over with.

    On the issue of a town council chaplain, I can see the need for one, but again, does that exclude non-believers again. Non-believers do have the need for someone to discuss ethical concerns with too.

  3. "how would you react if you were a town councillor and at the start of each meeting there were Islamic prayers?"

    I was thinking about that earlier on as I wrote the post, and it's a pretty good equivalent. I think I'd sit out, or turn up after I knew the prayers were over.

    So if there are people who struggle with it, it does make sense to have prayers prior to official business, rather than part of them. I get the feeling that's pretty much what happens in Parliament.

    The way chaplaincies are going, many of them are co-ordinators for a wider team of people from the community. I work with the Yeovil College chaplain, and he's happy to bring in Muslims, humanists, etc. depending on peoples faith position.