THE practice of saying prayers at the start of council meetings is akin to councillors’ reading pornographic or racist material, lawyers for the National Secular Society (NSS) told the High Court last Friday.
The NSS and the former Bideford town councillor Clive Bone brought judicial-review proceedings against Bideford Town Council after councillors there twice rejected Mr Bone’s request for prayers to be abolished. The council said that prayers were not compulsory, and that councillors who objected to the practice could either sit in silence or leave the room until prayers were completed.
But David Wolfe, representing the NSS and Mr Bone, told Mr Justice Ouseley: “Saying a person can leave [the room while prayers are being said] is not an answer. A council could say ‘We’re going to spend five minutes reading racist material or pornographic material.’ Saying a black councillor or a female councillor can leave the room isn’t an answer. They are disadvantaged.
“Why should a councillor come out as a non-believer? He might want to keep that to himself.”
Mr Bone was elected to Bideford Town Council in May 2007, but did not seek re-election in May this year. He said that he had “effectively been forced out of public life” because his fellow councillors insisted on saying prayers.
Mr Bone was not present at last week’s hearing, but his barrister said that he could not stand for re-election because of the “embarrassment, awkwardness, and sense of frustration” he felt as a result of the prayers, and that he “did not believe religious observance to have any place in public life”.
In a witness statement read to the court, the executive director of the NSS, Keith Porteous Wood, said that religion should be a “private matter” rather than something “manifested in the public domain”. He said that he did not seek to stop believers’ practising their belief as long as it “didn’t impinge on others”.
Mr Bone and the NSS argue that the practice of saying prayers at the start of council meetings is discriminatory and contrary to both the Human Rights Act and the Equality Act. They also argue that the council has no legal authority to say prayers at the start of its meetings because, as a statutory body, it can do only what the law specifically says it can do.
In papers lodged with the court, the NSS had originally suggested that a ban on religious observance by councils should extend also to Remembrance Sunday services; but before the hearing they revised their arguments to limit them to the issue of prayers at council meetings.
Mr Justice Ouseley said: “Mr Wolfe may have limited his argument in order to achieve a victory here, but it might be a false hope that he can limit it. If he is right here, the implications would go further.”
In his skeleton argument, James Dingemans QC, for Bideford Town Council, said: “If the claimants succeed in their campaign, there will be far-reaching consequences: the coronation oath would need to be abolished; the council’s involvement in services of remembrance would be prevented; and chaplains would not be able to serve in HM Armed Forces.”
He denied that the saying of prayers resulted in any discrimination. “There is no illegality on the part of the council in having prayers at council meetings. . . The claimants sought to bring secularism to Bideford, and they were unsuccessful.”
He said that the Human Rights Act sought to protect pluralism; but that pluralism did not mean the “obliteration” of a way of life. “The Human Rights Act does not say that. If it did, all those who campaigned against it coming in would be right. But they are wrong.
“In this case, the Human Rights Act allows this practice, which has continued since Elizabethan times, to continue today. This is not a case of discrimination, and there is no interference with the claimants’ rights.”
Mr Justice Ouseley asked whether a threshold had to be passed before a person could claim to have been disadvantaged. Mr Wolfe replied: “If you perceive yourself to be disadvantaged, that’s enough.”
The judge reserved judgment.
Prayers were expected to be said again yesterday at the start of a meeting of Bideford Town Council. The agenda lists the first item on the agenda as “prayers — subject to statutory regulation”.
The council is being indemnified against costs by the Christian Institute. Its spokesman, Mike Judge, said after the hearing: “I am very troubled that this might be the first in a series of cases to try to push Christianity out of public life. Let’s remember that our religious-liberty laws are freedom ‘of’ religion, not freedom ‘from’ religion.”
Mr Porteous Wood said that the court’s decision would affect 60 per cent of councils in the country, who say prayers before council meetings. “We’ve had lots of other councillors contact us from other parts of the country who also think that being made to pray or effectively having to walk away and not be part of this unbidden is actually making them feel unwelcome in council meetings.”
The Bishop of Exeter, the Rt Revd Michael Langrish, has written to the council to assure them of his “full support and prayers”. He says: “It seems to me entirely right that the Town Council should have refused to abandon prayers for its meetings unilaterally, as requested. The tradition of saying prayers before meetings is an integral part of the British government, and prayers are said each day in the House of Commons and House of Lords.
“It is right and appropriate that those who don’t wish to attend prayers can opt out or remain silent, but that they allow those who do wish to pray before they embark on business affecting the lives of thousands of constituents to do so.”
The new chairman of Gloucester County Council, Councillor Brian Thornton, announced last week that he was abandoning the saying of prayers at the start of council meetings. “This is not a religious setting: it is a council one. As such, I have decided I do not wish to cause exclusion in any way; so we will do without the prayers.”