Council will fight for prayers

Joseph Bulmer

Despite the High Court ruling, Bideford Council will continue to fight to save their prayers.

BIDEFORD Town Council is preparing to do battle to say its prayers after a judge ruled the practice unlawful.

Council officials will meet their legal representatives tomorrow (Thursday) to decide what to do next.

Meanwhile, other local councils told the Gazette they would continue to pray before meetings for the time being.

And the government is planning to bring forward an Act which would enable local authorities to continue to say prayers if they wanted.

The High Court ruled that the Bideford council acted unlawfully by including prayers as part of the formal council proceedings.

Clive Bone, an atheist and former councillor, who started the action with help from the National Secular Society, was delighted with the outcome.

He stood down at the last election because he objected to prayers being on the agenda.

This week, he said: “I am very pleased with the result and I think it is a victory for people generally.

“I know several young people who have been put off applying to be councillors because of the prayers and I hope this result will encourage them.

“I believe people have the right to worship and also the right not to worship and I have got no problem with prayers being said before meetings.”

But Councillor Trevor Johns, Bideford Town Mayor, said that saying prayers before the official proceedings started was missing a vital point.

Mr Johns said: “The reason prayers are the first thing on the agenda is because they are the Mayor’s prerogative.

“The councillors should be seated in the chamber before they stand for the Mayor’s arrival, which is then followed by the prayers.

“It is a matter of respect and something which I think has been forgotten in this business.”

But the council will not be giving up easily and will be debating whether to appeal the decision at the next full council meeting on March 8.

Mr Johns added: “I have got plans afoot for us to do battle. There are more people for us than against us; people are finding the whole thing ridiculous.

“We have taken many items to vote in the council before but we have never felt the need to run off and take things to the High Court.”

The court ruling may also be superceded by Eric Pickles, secretary of state for communities and local government, who is planning to introduce his new Localism Act as soon as possible which would hand back the decision to say or not to say prayers to local authorities.

Mr Pickles said on the social networking site Twitter: “Bideford prayer verdict: Localism Act gives councils power of general competence; logically this includes ability to pray before meetings.”

Other town councils will be continuing with their prayers one way or another.

Councillor Rod Donovan, the Mayor of Ilfracombe, said: “It normally comes down to the desire of the Mayor, but if anyone doesn’t want to take part in prayers they can leave the room.”

Ilfracombe Town Council will still be holding its prayers until the council decide otherwise, while Barnstaple Town Council and Torridge District Council will be holding prayers before the official proceedings.

The decision on the prayers was given by Mr Justice Ouseley, who said: “The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a council is not lawful under Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue.”