Friday, 10 February 2012

Local council has no statutory authority for prayers

Updated Friday evening

UK Human Rights Blog Prayer in council meetings was unlawful, rules High Court by Rosalind English

The High Court today ruled that the Devonshire Council had overreached their powers under the Local Government Act 1972 by insisting on the practice of prayers as part of their formal meetings. The ruling will apply to the formal meetings of all councils in England and Wales, the majority of which are thought to conduct prayers as part of their meetings.

The full judgment is here (PDF).

More from Rosalind:

…The issue was solely about whether prayers can be said as a part of the formal business transacted by the Council at a meeting to which all Councillors are summoned. The claimants were not seeking to introduce a bar on acts of worship before the meeting, thus hindering the exercise by Councillors who wished to pray of their right to do so.

The judge granted the declaration sought, that the saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a Council is not lawful under s111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue…

and this:

In this careful and pragmatic judgment, Ousley J demonstrates just the sort of objectivity that Laws LJ identified as the sine qua non of adjudication, in his famous rebuttal of Lord Carey’s call for special protection for religious beliefs. The judge resisted a wider interpretation of the statutory powers, because this

would still require the Court to take a view about the extent to which public prayers in the formal Council meeting were likely to facilitate, or be conducive to or incidental to, the performance of the Council’s functions. That is not a view which the Court should form…It is not for a Court to rule upon the likelihood of divine, and presumptively beneficial, guidance being available or the effectiveness of Christian public prayer in obtaining it.

And she goes on to quote Laws LJ in McFarlane v Relate Avon. Follow the link above to read her whole analysis.

Some media coverage:

BBC Bideford Town Council prayers ruled unlawful

Guardian Council loses court battle over prayer sessions before meetings and Local councils have right to say their prayers, says Eric Pickles

Telegraph Prayers before council meetings ruled unlawful and Bishop of Exeter urges councils to use ‘prayer loophole’

Ekklesia Prayer cannot be made compulsory in councils, court ruling says and Council prayer ruling is about freedom of conscience

Friday evening updates

Heresy Corner Bideford Council: Carry On Praying?

The High Court’s decision in the Bideford council prayers case (brought by the NSS on behalf of an atheist former councillor, Clive Bone) has produced much wailing and gnashing of teeth among the Christian rights lobby: the Christian Institute, Christian Concern, various rentaquote bishops and so on. And it has, naturally, delighted secularists, including the NSS’s Keith Porteous Wood, who said that it sent a “clear secular message” about the separation of religion from politics.

The BBC’s Robert Piggott sees the decision as further evidence that “the tide has been flowing pretty firmly against Christianity in public life”.

But for two reasons I think this assessment is entirely wrong. For secular campaigners, this is a very Pyrrhic victory indeed…

Law and Lawyers Prayers at Council meetings

Religion Law Blog Council Prayers

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Friday, 10 February 2012 at 4:05pm GMT | TrackBack
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Categorised as: equality legislation

...and the Christian B&B owners lost their appeal today too. Not a good day for Lord Carey or the Christian Institute.

Posted by: Richard Ashby on Friday, 10 February 2012 at 5:05pm GMT

Presumably, the singing of the National Anthem and expressions such as 'God bless the Queen' are also ruled out at council meetings. Will this require careful drafting of anything offering support or loyal sentiments to H.M.?

Posted by: Tony Cullingworth on Friday, 10 February 2012 at 8:01pm GMT

In practice Bideford were not minuting who was present until after prayers had finished, and so they can continue pretty much as they do now provided they sort out their paperwork.

Posted by: Peter on Friday, 10 February 2012 at 8:57pm GMT

If the Church requires the State to guarantee religious freedom for all it's citizens, then, where we are a religious/secular plurality (outside of a Church Meeting), there should be , surely, greater sensitivity on the part of Christians - not wanting to impose their beliefs on others.

Maybe the only way out of this might be for Christians on the Council to gather in private before the council meeting to offer prayers. This would leave the meeting free from restrictions of religious dogmatism. Of course, the same freedom should be give to other faith groups - to meet in private before any meetings so that prayers may be offered by them.

Secular people may of course enjoy the extra few minutes for them to join the meeting

Posted by: Father Ron Smith on Friday, 10 February 2012 at 10:10pm GMT

However, the Localism Act, which comes into force today, gives Councils, as I understand it, the power to choose to say prayers as part of their business.

Ironic timing.

Posted by: Doug Chaplin on Friday, 10 February 2012 at 10:11pm GMT

If Islam were the national state religion rather than the Anglican version of Christianity - then prayers would surely have to be offered for former Councillor Clive Bone. For the chances are that he really would be rather "former".

Posted by: Father David on Saturday, 11 February 2012 at 7:55am GMT

Alternatively, those in favour of prayer could assemble before the meeting and pray together, rather than ensuring that those who aren't in favour have to witness their public churchmanship.

Men are won to Christ by the persuasion of the Holy Spirit, not by a coercive disregard for their current beliefs.

Posted by: David Shepherd on Saturday, 11 February 2012 at 10:16am GMT

What a nonsense!

You really do wonder what Keith the seemingly fanatical Secular Society are up to these days, they have the smell of Reform about them or even the odour of Fred Phelps ......

It's as if they wake up in the morning and say:
"What can we do to make Lord Carey sound reasonable?" or;"How can we make Anglican Mainstream sound considered and moderate?"or;"
"make Andrea Minichiello Williams and Paul Diamond appear wise and fair?".

"Let's haul some council in front of an inky smudge and get 'em for, off and on over the last 500 years, forcing our people to pray for God's guidance when they don't believe in 'im or 'er."

I am so annoyed - for the first time I am having sympathy for these poor benighted and heavily repressed (suppressed?) Christians who can't leave the house without fear of being jumped on just for praying or turning away a few gays.

Posted by: Martin Reynolds on Saturday, 11 February 2012 at 1:59pm GMT

David's comments compare very favourably with the undisciplined rantings of some former members of the Church of England.

Posted by: john on Saturday, 11 February 2012 at 3:55pm GMT

While, as a Yank, I'm rather relieved to NOT have to have an opinion on this, what DavidS says makes sense.

[FWIW, I believe public prayers at U.S. governmental functions are a unambiguous violations of the Constitution.]

Posted by: JCF on Saturday, 11 February 2012 at 8:06pm GMT

It's all a bit silly really. I saw a headline saying something about a judge 'banning public prayer', one just gives up on occasions. I have no problem with religion finding a way to coexist with politics. There should though be sensitivity to atheists (they're not going to be converted by being forced to sit through civic prayer). Sensitivity is called for where there are a large number of adherents of other faiths. Respect and common sense will take us down most of the road we need to travel.

Posted by: Craig Nelson on Saturday, 11 February 2012 at 10:23pm GMT

This is interesting from an American perspective. We have a constitutional provision barring the establishment of religion while England has an established church. Nonetheless, in 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court in Marsh v. Chambers permitted prayers at the opening of legislative sessions. That case involved the legislature of a state but the ruling has been interpreted to mean that prayers are permitted at the beginning of meetings of local legislative bodies like city councils. That's fairly common here.

The current controvery here is whether one can close the prayer with something like "we pray in Jesus' name." Most courts have held that this is beyond the pale -- that's too sectarian. One can pray only to to some amorphous, non-sectarion "God." That doesn't mean, however, that in many places "Jesus" gets slipped in and the minister gets away with it as long as no one complains.

Posted by: dr.primrose on Sunday, 12 February 2012 at 3:26am GMT

Fr David - Eh? Mel Philips, is that you?

Extraordinary how a fairly technical ruling on a rather marginal matter relating to a local authority in the West Country has stirred up the nutters. As Peter remarks, this is mostly a matter of how Bideford Council minutes its meetings. Not the kind of subject that usually brings out the sky-is-falling brigade. I mean, yes, we expect this sort of thing from George Carey and the Bishop of Exeter, but both George Pitcher and Giles Fraser seem - uncharacteristically - to have gone a bit mental over it. Bizarre.

Posted by: rjb on Sunday, 12 February 2012 at 1:31pm GMT

Confusing reading prayers out of a book with praying.

Better to spend the time in silence -more likely to be(come) prayer, and also not exclude and alienate others.

Then the business meeting itself may become more prayerful, with behaviour respectful and caring of others.

If the 'keen Christian spokesmen' but knew it, 'secularism' is the cleansing of motive we seem to need...

Posted by: Laurence Roberts on Sunday, 12 February 2012 at 10:13pm GMT

RJB - perhaps the general concern is because it does not just apply to Bideford but indeed to all council meetings across the country, and sets a precedent for other public areas such as the house of parliament. The question is who is being glorified in these institutions - God or man.

Posted by: david wilson on Monday, 13 February 2012 at 5:18pm GMT
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