Council ‘surprised and disappointed’ at prayer decision

Joseph Bulmer

Mixed reactions to today’s High Court ruling on council prayers.

THERE has been a mixed reaction to the High Court ruling today (Friday) that prayers said at Bideford Town Council meetings were ‘unlawful’.

The council said it was ‘surprised and disappointed’ at the result, but were backed in their view by campaign group Christian Concern and Secretary of State for communities and local government Eric Pickles.

Town clerk Heather Blackburn said the council was consulting its legal team to consider the options and decide whether to appeal.

Mrs Blackburn said: “We are surprised and disappointed that the court has decided the saying of prayers as part of the formal business meeting of local councils is unlawful.

“However, the court has confirmed that prayers may be said in the council chamber immediately preceding formal business.”

The council was taken to court by the National Secular Society (NSS) after former councillor Clive Bone, an atheist, argued he felt “embarrassed and disappointed” by the prayers.

Mr Bone stood down in the last elections after losing council votes to abolish the prayers on more than one occasion.

Mrs Blackburn added: “We are very pleased that the court has decided in favour of Bideford that we had not discriminated against Mr Bone nor infringed his human rights and that the practices adopted by the Council did not infringe equality legislation.”

Andrea Williams, chief executive of the campaigning group Christian Concern, said: “Prayers have been said at Bideford Town Council meetings since the 16th century; Christianity runs through the fabric of our society.

“What next? Will they take our prayers out of parliament, or at the coronation of our monarchs? And where will it leave us, but in a vacuum?”

MP Eric Pickles said earlier today on the social networking site Twitter: “Bideford prayer judgement: I believe right to worship is a fundamental and hard fought British liberty.”

He also tweeted: “Bideford prayer verdict: Localism Act gives councils power of general competence, logically this includes ability to pray before meetings”

But Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS, said: “We believe that council meetings should be conducted in a manner equally welcoming to all councillors, regardless of their religious beliefs, or indeed, lack of belief.

“The NSS is not seeking to deprive those who wish to pray the opportunity to do so; indeed, we fight to retain freedom of religion and belief. The judgement clearly states that religious freedoms are not hindered, as councillors who wish to do so are free to say prayers before council meetings.”