This past Thursday the Washington Post reported on a story that’s been causing no small amount of controversy in Britain, even sparking comment from the Prime Minister and the Queen Herself. It centers on the small English town of Bideford, and litigation over Christian prayers said as part of the official agenda during Town Council meetings. Here’s how the Washington Post leads things off.
“Perhaps the locals should have anticipated sparks on a town council stocked not only with a practicing pagan, a staunch atheist and an agnostic former stripper but also two evangelical Christians and a Methodist church organist. But few could have predicted that one small town’s fight over the abolition of Christian prayers at public meetings would escalate into Britain’s own culture wars.”
Wow! That’s quite a opening paragraph! A Pagan! An atheist! A stripper! What an interesting council, I’d love to hear more about the dynamic at play at meetings. Sadly, we hear no more about these councilors, and jump straight to the verdict.
“[Clive] Bone took the town to court — winning a ruling last month that appeared to set a legal precedent by saying government had no authority to compel citizens to hear prayer.”
I think the stress should be on “appeared” here. Commentators have noted that this ruling isn’t a clear win for either side, and is already being appealed. So while the National Secular Society is calling this a landmark ruling, it is not clear if this will actually change church-state interactions throughout the country. More than one commentator has pointed out that this simply prevents putting prayer on the official agenda. A local council can still have all the prayer they want before official business begins. Further, the United Kingdom, unlike the United States, has an established church, and religious freedoms are guaranteed by laws, not enshrined constitutionally. So the waters are murkier regarding how to build a “wall of separation” in England.
“Under the old regime I had to wait outside the room while everyone else was praying. This meant that it appeared I was being late or just plain rude to other people’s religions as I walked across the floor afterwards.” – Muslim politician Imran Khan, Conservative councillor on Reigate and Banstead Borough Council, BBC
I think the presence of religious minorities on the Town Council (and other political bodies in England) is perhaps the strongest argument against enshrined Christian prayers on the agenda, one that points to the growing religious diversity in Britain. One study claims that the UK will no longer be a majority Christian country by 2030, if so, does that mean disestablishment and a truly secular state are inevitable? I’d love to hear what some non-Christian politicians think about the questions raised, including our anonymous Pagan.