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Prayers OK before, but not at start

26 July 2012

by a staff reporter

ANOTHER council has removed prayers from its agenda, despite government attempts to shore up the practice. St Albans district council voted by 34 to 13 last week to remove prayers from the agenda, although they will still be said before the meeting begins.

Those councillors who voted against their removal said that the city would be the "biggest loser" if prayers were dropped. But supporters of the move said prayers belonged in church, not at council meetings.

At St Paul's, in the city, Canon Tony Hurle said: "In some ways it is a small move, to put prayers before the meeting rather than at the start of the meeting, but it is part of a greater shift in society to put Christianity in the private rather than the public sphere. It is about marginalising Christianity to become a matter of private choice, and as such I regret it very much.

"I understand that some people who are not Christians find it difficult, but by reducing the influence of our Christian heritage in this way we are weakening many things that have shaped our culture. By taking Christianity out of the public arena, I fear we may lose much more than many people will realise."

The decision by St Albans' council was taken in the wake of the ruling by a High Court judge earlier this year, after a legal challenge by the National Secular Society (NSS) to abolish prayers from the agenda of meetings of Bideford town council in Devon.

In February, Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that the prayers were not lawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972. He said, however, that prayers could be said as long as councillors were not formally summoned to attend ( News, 17 February).

The Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, moved swiftly to bring in powers under the Localism Act to restore the right of councils to say prayers at meetings. Yet despite his action, several councils across the country have since moved to drop prayers. Some have swapped them for a short time of silent reflection, while others have moved them to before the start of the meeting.

A spokesman for the Department of Communities and Local Government said that it was not keeping a tally of which councils had dropped prayers.

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