AN ANGLICAN Conservative MP is steering a Bill through Parliament which would enshrine in law the right for local councils to start meetings with prayers, or take part in religious events.
Jake Berry, backbench MP for Rossendale and Darwen in Lancashire, introduced the Private Members' Bill with the backing of the Government in the summer. It has now passed the second-reading stage and will be sent to committee.
Mr Berry said last Friday that he was inspired by a High Court ruling in 2012, which found that councils did not have the power to hold prayers at council meetings, after a case was brought against Bideford Town Council in north Devon by the National Secular Society.
"I thought it was a great opportunity to put back into law the right for councils to have prayers and worship, and get involved with religious events - to effectively overturn this deeply wrong judgment by the High Court," Mr Berry said.
"The way the judgment was written, it could say that local authorities had to stop becoming involved in Remembrance Sundays, or any event which had a religious side to it."
After the 2012 ruling, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, gave councils the "general power of competence", which allows local authorities to do anything an individual could do unless specifically prohibited by other laws. This enabled councils to continue holding prayers, despite the High Court ruling.
Smaller bodies, such as parish councils, were not covered by the general power of competence, however, a loophole that Mr Berry hopes to close with his Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill.
"I don't expect everyone to subscribe to the same belief structure I have, but I did think, as a Christian country, to overturn 600 years of tradition with one court ruling was wrong. It is very undemocratic," he said.
His Bill, he clarified, "is not trying to impose Church of England or any particular faith. The Bill doesn't even seek to define prayer."
The executive director of the National Secular Society, Keith Porteous Wood, said that the society did not object to councillors' praying before meetings - only when prayers were part of the council's agenda.
"Councillors should not be summoned to pray. That is not what they are elected to do, and it is divisive," he said in a statement on Tuesday. "If there are to be prayers, they should not be on the meeting's agenda, and there should be a sufficient interval for those who wish not to pray to be able to join the meeting in an orderly way."
He also said that having prayers, a practice that Bideford Town Council claimed dated back to the reign of Elizabeth I, would put off younger councillors, who "tend to be less religious".
Mr Berry insisted, however, that his Bill was purely about letting councils have the freedom to decide themselves whether to hold prayers or not.