In England, a Town Council Prayer is Ruled Unlawful

The Bideford town council in Devon (in England) did something even American cities don’t do. Instead of praying before meetings, they scheduled them right on the agenda.

It took one of the councilmembers, Clive Bone, to finally try to put a stop to it. First, a compromise was offered — the Council could pray *before* meetings — but it was rejected. Then it went to the courts.

Clive Bone near the council chamber (Mark Passmore/APEX)

The good news: It worked! No more prayers during meetings. (Thanks, National Secular Society!) You can read the judge’s ruling here (PDF).

NSS lawyers argued that council members who were not religious were being “indirectly discriminated against” and that their human rights were being breached.

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.

The bittersweet news: The judge ruled that prayer should stop not because it was a violation of anyone’s rights, but because of an arcane law that simply didn’t give the council the power to hold such prayers.

Mr Justice Ouseley said: “A local authority has no power under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, or otherwise, to hold prayers as part of a formal local authority meeting, or to summon councillors to such a meeting at which prayers are on the agenda.”

He told the court: “There is no specific power to say prayers or to have any period of quiet reflection as part of the business of the council.”

Referring to Bideford, he said: “The council has on two occasions by a majority voted to retain public prayers at its full meetings.

“But that does not give it power to do what it has no power to do.”

You have to wonder what would’ve happened if the 1972 law had given them that power. Would it have been ok then? Precedence doesn’t always have to be follower. (Says me, the non-lawyer.)

The NSS is pleased with the outcome, though:

… Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society said:

“Acts of worship in council meetings are key to the separation of religion from politics, so we’re very pleased with the judgement, and the clear secular message it sends — particularly the statement made about the 1972 Act…

“We believe that council meetings should be conducted in a manner equally welcoming to all councillors, regardless of their religious beliefs, or indeed, lack of belief.

“The NSS is not seeking to deprive those who wish to pray the opportunity to do so; indeed, we fight to retain freedom of religion and belief. The judgement clearly states that religious freedoms are not hindered, as councillors who wish to do so are free to say prayers before council meetings.

As reader Jon points out in an email, the prayers used to be useless. Now, they’re useless and unlawful.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Ggsillars

    England, unlike the United States, has a state religion, the Church of England, of which the Queen is the titular head.  It sure complicates things in a country where recent surveys have indicated that half the population doesn’t even believe in a god.

    • Anonymous

      And yet it is a far more secular country than the US ever was and will ever be. Especially because the ridiculous extremes to which freedom of religion has been interpreted by some recent US courts only strengthens organized religion

      As also shown in some nordic countries, state religions tend to have the effect of making religion a cultural, but relatively benign institution in the west. It also makes it more uniform and doesn’t leave much room for extremist sects. Sure, it some draw backs in the school system, what with religious education, but all in all it turned it to be better

      • Anonymous

        True. Directly connecting the church and state as in England allows people who hate the government (which is half of the population at any given time) to also hate the church. Separation of church and state in America allows religion to control parts of the government without actually looking like they are the government itself. I think the American system is better because it protects us against Iranian style theocracies, but it also slows secularization of society to some extent.

        • Tim

          The differences are facinating.  However, both countries are stumbling in the right direction.

    • Spudman101

      Heh, this just reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother when I was a kid:
      Me: Mum, have we got a religion?
      Mum: Erm… Yeah… I think we’re C of E.
      Me: Is that the same as Christian?
      Mum: Errr… I dunno. I think so.

      The amount of people who count themselves as C of E and have never even been in a church is amazing. Lots of people I know would tick the box on a form out of habit but I don’t know anyone who goes to church and it seems to be getting rare for people to even have been christened.

      • Gordon Duffy

         such a shame the numbers are artificially inflated this way. Maybe if UK politicians knew how apathethic the population was about religion they’d stop pandering to it!

      • http://twitter.com/notlobau John

        So true, the only “Religious” person I knew when growing up in England was my fanatical Catholic Auntie, and her antics  put me off going anywhere near a church for ever.
        After recently visiting family in South Carolina I’m even more aware of the damage Religious zealots can cause.

  • Psbraterman

    Ggsis right.  Also, this shows why you should avoid the passive voice.  Not “First, a compromise was offered — the Council could pray *before* meetings — but it was rejected. ” but “Councillor Bone suggested … but the Council rejected this.” 

    The difference matters; we already have archbishops saying atheists want to stop people from praying. No such thing even suggested – just that prayer tshould no be an official part of council business.

  • Anonymous

    I guess you could call that a Dillon’s Rule approach to the problem.  I’m curious if any group has even tried in a lawsuit against local governments in the US. 

  • Michael

    I do like paragraph 27. Saying prayers compares quite well to singing a political party’s song.

  • Johann

    Something to note here is that this ruling seems to be widely understood to apply to all local governments in England, not just the Bideford town council. Correspondingly, there’s been a lot of outrage (not American-grade frothing-at-the-mouth-and-speaking-in-tongues outrage, but still pretty good by British standards) from religious organizations, and there’s been talk of an appeal.

    • Tim

      England AND WALES (but not Scotland or Northern Ireland)

  • Iamjennyturner

    There is unfortunately a possibility that recently-passed, not-yet-in-force local government reforms may make this ruling redundant and allow the imposition of compulsory mumbojumbo in council meetings again.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9075159/Government-tells-councils-to-carry-on-praying-despite-High-Court-ban.html

  • Anonymous

    I wish courts would stop using precedence as an excuse. It doesn’t matter what past courts have ruled. The only thing that matters is what the law says. I’m glad this court saw the law as more important than past rulings.

    • Anonymous

      That depends on the legal system. What you say is actually true in Civil law countries, where judges take other cases into account but usually aren’t bound by them. Precedent however plays a huge rule in common law systems.

      This was in England. Interestingly, Scotland uses Civil law

  • John F

    judging by the feedback in papers, talk shows and chat shows, the majority of the British public think the council was daft for having the prayer, and the NSS was daft for trying to get it banned. “Haven’t they all got nothing better to do?” A nation of Apathetics if ever there was one.

    • Gordon Duffy

       It is such an annoying attitude!

      • Tim

        I agree .  The worst possible sin in England is to “make a fuss” (I speak as an Englishman living in England).  We don’t like ideologues which makes it difficult for religions, but also for any political campaign as well.

        Still this decision has been better received by the public than I expected which makes me proud (in a quiet, small, measured English kind of way)


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