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…
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:
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