From Mr Keith Porteous Wood
Sir, - In "Pickles glad to have taken on 'secularist bigots'"
April), Eric Pickles expresses his gladness in enabling
"prayers before a council meeting", despite the National Secular
Society's pointing out on numerous occasions, and to him in person,
that we had actually suggested prayers before council meetings to
both Bideford and the High Court as a way forward. Such prayers
were legal before the High Court action and remain so after it.
So, why was so much of his Department's and Parliament's time
wasted on this Bill? He states that it "wasn't really [my
emphasis] about me wanting to proselytise Christianity". Not
everyone buys that.
Councillors are not elected to pray, and prayer shouldn't be
imposed on them. I agree with Mr Pickles that "it is a sign of a
civilised society if people who have no faith are respected," and
for me that also applies to those of other faiths than the prayers
being said; that was partly why we brought our action.
Mr Pickles claims that "expressions of faith in public life need
not lead to conflict . . . so long as people demonstrated" respect.
But, as he knows, they have caused difficulties. For example, a
Muslim councillor in Reigate and Banstead leaving the chamber
during Christian prayers was asked to "consider leaving the
country", and a Christian councillor in Portsmouth left the chamber
in protest at Muslim prayers.
Prayers during meetings are needlessly divisive in an
increasingly multi-religious and non-religious society.
We are not seeking to "stamp out religion", as he claims: we
stand up for freedom of religion and belief, and would not support
the imposition of atheist observance on councillors either.
The criticism of judges by government ministers unhappy about
their decisions is normally confined to banana republics that are
not overly fastidious about the rule of law. Yet, since the High
Court action, Mr Pickles has complained about "judicial
I don't think it is us who are "deeply bigoted and deeply
KEITH PORTEOUS WOOD
National Secular Society
25 Red Lion Square
London WC1R 4RL