RELIGIOUS leaders – plus Community Secretary Eric Pickles – have let loose a collective howl of horror over the news that the National Secular Society had won its prayer case against Bideford Council.
The God squad, according to the Telegraph, are saying that it amounts to a victory for an “aggressive secularist agenda” intent on banishing religion from public life.
A High Court judge ruled that there was no “lawful” place for prayer during formal proceedings after an atheist parish councillor objected that the tradition excluded non-believers.
Secular campaigners insisted the case had only “modest” implications and would not interfere with anyone’s freedom of religion.
There were also fears that the ruling could throw local preparations to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee into doubt by opening the door to legal challenges from opponents of the monarchy.
The legal challenge was sparked by Clive Bone, a former member of Bideford Town Council in Devon, who objected to the tradition on grounds of conscience. Yesterday, at the High Court in London, Mr Justice Ouseley, ruled that it did not breach Mr Bone’s human rights or amount to discrimination, but nevertheless concluded that it was “not lawful” to say prayers as part of formal meetings under a clause of the Local Government Act 1972.
He issued a formal legal declaration stating that councils had “no power” to include prayers in meetings – although they could be held in council chambers before the formal proceedings get under way.
Simon Calvert, a director of the Christian institute, which supported the council’s case, said:
We are talking about something that has gone on for centuries in a constitutionally Christian country … this outlaws it at a stroke and it seems to be another example of the courts siding with an aggressive secularist agenda.
Local authority lawyers are going to be asking themselves … what about singing the national anthem? What about celebrating the Diamond Jubilee? Do they fall outside the Local Government Act?
Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, is understood to be concerned about a “chilling” effect on some councils planning jubilee street parties for fear of legal action.
His lawyers are preparing to issue emergency legal guidance to councils, effectively urging them to ignore the ruling. They have advised him that new laws, due to come into force within weeks, would override the judgment by giving councils a “general power of competence” over proceedings.
Pickles said freedom to worship was a “fundamental and hard-fought British liberty”.
We are a Christian country, with an established Church in England, governed by the Queen. Public authorities – be it Parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish.
This drew a sharp response from Freethinker contributor James Merryweather, who immediately emailed a letter to Pickles:
You insist that Britain is a Christian country, so what is to prevent others claiming with equal petulance that, for instance, we are a nation of biologists? Neither is true and – please note – we botanists do not claim special privilege under any circumstances; we just want the right to study and enjoy biology.
Neither do we claim any special privilege as atheists (for an awful lot of biologists are atheists) or as atheist biologists, as happens to be what I am.
Please take notice of what Clive Bone (Bideford) is saying when he fairly states: ‘Religious freedom is an absolute right, and so is freedom from religion’. By all means follow whatever religion you please, but don’t for one moment think you have any right to impose that religion on others, particularly in places where democracy is a fundamental tenet, as in town council chambers. That is not fair.
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, said prayer was:
Central the public life of the country. There is a huge constitutional implication to this. Where will this stop – by a test case about prayer in Parliament?
Prayers in Parliament are definitely part of the proceedings, they are recorded as such, they are on the order paper and part therefore of the constitutional arrangement of the country as the Queen in Parliament under God.
Muslims aren’t best pleased either. Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation said the judgment was an:
Attack on all faith. We are a religious country, a majority Christian country. As people of faith – whether we take inspiration from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or whatever – we should take pride in that and be able to say prayers, I think this judgment is a step back, it is an attack against freedom.
Bone, a retired engineer, from Bideford said he was “delighted” by the ruling.
I totally agree with Eric Pickles when he says that there should be freedom of religion but it is not a licence to impose it on others in inappropriate situations.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, added:
This is an important step in recognition of secularism in public life so that everybody whatever their religion or lack of it feels equally welcome and treated with equal respect.
And Cllr Imran Khan, a Tory member of Reigate and Banstead Borough Council in Surrey, said:
Religion has no place in politics. This High Court judgment is a victory for everyone who believes that democracy and religious freedom is the cornerstone of western free society.
The council was granted leave to appeal but last night it emerged that both sides were considering appeals – on different aspects of the ruling.
The judgment came a day after a series of leading clerics called on the Church of England General Synod to “resist” moves to exclude chaplains from NHS hospitals.