LOCAL councils will be able to continue to hold prayers, despite the recent High Court ruling against Bideford Town Council (News, 17 February), after an intervention by the Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles.
Mr Pickles has fast-tracked and signed a Parliamentary Commencement Order so that a new power contained in the Government’s Localism Act 2011, enabling councils to hold formal prayers at meetings if they wish to do so, can be exercised from April.
He said that overturning last week’s ruling was “a matter of urgency. . . The High Court judgment has far wider significance than just the municipal agenda of Bideford Town Council. For too long, faith has been marginalised in public life, undermining the very foundations of the British nation. We will stand for freedom to worship, for Parliamentary sovereignty, and for long-standing British liberties.”
On 10 February, Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that local councils had no power under the Local Government Act 1972, or any other authority, to hold prayers as part of formal business at meetings. The case concerned Bideford Town Council, a parish council in Devon, where public prayers were said at full council meetings. A former local councillor, Clive Bone, supported by the National Secular Society, claimed that this breached the prohibition on religious discrimination under the Human Rights Convention. The court decided that there was no discrimination, but that the council had no power to hold prayers as part of the formal meeting.
The Localism Act 2011 contains a new general power of competence that gives local authorities the legal capacity to do anything that an individual can do that is not specifically prohibited.
The power is to be extended to parish councils in April, provided it is voted for by both Houses of Parliament. In the mean time, informal advice on how parish councils can still hold prayers has been issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government. This reiterates that there is nothing in the judgment that suggests that prayers cannot be held before the formal start of a meeting.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said that council prayers “look set to become a battle between the Government and the courts at ever higher levels”, and questioned Mr Pickles’s use of the Localism Act.
“His powers to pass legislation are not, as he implies, untrammelled,” he said.
A YouGov poll of 1828 people, conducted following the Bideford ruling, found that 55 per cent were opposed to councils’ holding prayers, while 26 per cent were in favour. More than half (56 per cent) agreed that Britain was a Christian country and 55 per cent agreed that councils should be allowed to hold prayers as part of formal meetings.
The intervention of Mr Pickles follows a speech last week by a fellow Cabinet Minister, Baroness Warsi, criticising the intolerance of “militant secularism”.
This week, Cromer Town Council voted in favour of a proposal to appoint a spiritual adviser to offer guidance to the mayor.
The guidance on holding prayers is available at www.communities.gov.uk/publications/localgovernment/prayeradvice.