Prayers Ban at Council Meetings Court Ruling

Court Bans Prayers at Council Meetings In the UK today the High Court ruled that saying prayers at the beginning of council meetings was unlawful!  An atheist ex-councillor claims victory!

What do you think the implications of this will be?

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The saga began when Clive Bone was elected a councillor on Bideford council five years ago.

Bone, a retired public services consultant and confirmed atheist, was "shocked and horrified" when he discovered that prayers were said at the beginning of meetings at the redbrick town hall in Devon.

"It was out-dated, antiquated and a turn-off," he said.

Bone told his fellow councillors that he believed the saying of prayers was bad for local democracy. "It sends out a signal that local government is for particular types of people and not for everyone. I know younger people – people in their 30s and 40s – just say: 'No way' when they hear there are prayers."

After being voted down twice by the council on ending the practice he has now been granted his wish by a high court ruling. In a landmark judgment on Friday, Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that Bideford council had no statutory powers to hold prayers during formal council meetings. "I think it's a boost for local government and local democracy," said Bone of the ruling.

His resolve to fight the practice was stiffened following an uncomfortable row after a Remembrance Sunday. He attended the parade and two minutes' silence at the town's war memorial but did not go to the church service afterwards. "I put my ceremonial robes back in the council house and went home. One of the vociferous Christians complained in the press about it."

He says it would be going too far to suggest the case has split the town. "I think 90% of the population are indifferent," said Bone, 68. And despite the unseemly row over the Remembrance day service, he said the matter had not caused animosity among those involved. "It's caused interesting discussion. I haven't had any animosity. It's been treated as an intellectual debate.

"People just take different views. Some people on the council seem to think if you vote for something it's lawful. One of the points was raised during the court hearing was just because a council votes for it, that doesn't make it lawful."

Tony Inch – the councillor who complained over Bone's non-attendance at the Remembrance service – agreed that the dispute had not led to confrontations on the high street.

But that was not to say he was not disappointed by the ruling. "Oh dear," was his reaction when the news was broken to him by the Guardian. "It's a shock and a shame. It has implications for councils up and down the country. Where is it going to end? It's eroding the whole basis of Christian life in this country."

Inch remains baffled that anyone could object to prayers being said. On the evening before the judgment a group of Quakers was invited to attend the town hall. They led a few minutes of silence. "This is what we do, all faiths are welcome to come along and say prayers. We ask all faiths to come along and say prayers."

Inch denied that prayers put people off from standing for the council. "We are inundated with people coming along to be councillors. I've never known anyone being put off by the saying of prayers," he said.

"It's nothing to be embarrassed about. If you don't believe in God, saying prayers should be no odds."

Bone feels he could not have taken the case all the way to the high court without the backing of the National Secular Society. To the anger of some councillors, the NSS seemed determined to use Bideford as an example, which could have put huge financial pressure on the council. Happily for the council, the Christian Institute stepped in to fight its corner.

It is thought that around half the councils in the country hold prayers before meetings. There have been examples of councillors making a stand by putting on headphones during prayers. One of the cases aired in court concerned a councillor who walked out when Muslim prayers were said.

The judgment, some argue, has an impact on other areas of public life.

The bishop of Exeter, the Rt Rev Michael Langrish, said: "I've got no doubt the agenda of the National Secular Society is inch by inch to drive religion out of the public sphere. If they get their way it will have enormous implications for prayers in parliament, Remembrance day, the jubilee celebrations, even the singing of the national anthem.

"The wider issue has got to be resisted. It strikes right at the heart of our understanding of ourself as a society. No one is compelled to participate in these activities. There is complete freedom, that freedom has to be respected."

Langrish rushed out of the House of Lords to have his say in television studios. He described how in the Lords prayers are said at the start of the day. Those who did not wish to participate wait outside and are called in once prayers are concluded.

He argued: "Prayers before council meetings set the very serious decisions of local councillors into a wider moral context to which the church, past, present and future, makes an enormously important contribution. No one has ever been compelled to attend prayers — they are a voluntary activity."

Langrish added that he would encourage councils in his diocese, including Bideford, to continue to say prayers before the statutory business of the meeting began.

Back in Bideford, Mayor Trevor Johns admited bemusement at the ruling. "We held two votes on this issue and won both of them by a majority," he said.

"That's what disappoints me. It was a democratic process – you don't go running to the high court whenever you lose a vote. There are a lot of ramifications – not just for Bideford but all councils."

Bone is no longer a councillor, stepping down last year because he thought it would be hypocritical to continue. "I decided that while prayers were taking place I wouldn't stand." He does not plan to stand for election again. "I think we need younger people in government," he said before heading to the pub to celebrate his victory.

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