Ruling on prayers will affect councils nationwide

Joseph Bulmer

High Court ruling against prayers said at Bideford Town Council meetings will have ramifications for councils across the country.

A HIGH Court judge has ruled that Bideford Town Council was acting “unlawfully” in saying prayers in formal meetings.

The council was brought to the Judicial Review by the National Secular Society (NSS), after former councillor Clive Bone, an atheist, complained against the prayers.

The NSS estimated that just over half of the UK’s councils began their official proceedings with prayers; the majority being Christian but others having a multi-faith element.

In passing judgement, Mr Justice Ouseley said: “I do not think the 1972 Act should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of councillors, however sincere or large in number, to exclude, or even to a modest extent, to impose burdens on or even to mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression of them. They are all equally elected councillors”.

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS, said: ““Our interest in this issue was prompted by a complaint from a Bideford Town Councillor, Clive Bone, who felt uncomfortable at having to sit through prayers, homilies and requests for divine guidance while carrying out his formal duties as an elected councillor.

“The only alternative to this discomfort was to walk out, unbidden by the mayor, which would look discourteous to those in the public gallery.”

The motion to stop prayers had been brought before the council several times before, including a joint suggestion from Mr Bone and Cllr Peter Christie in 2008 for a “compromise” of a period of silence, which was rejected by nine votes to five.

Prayers have been read at town council meetings across the country since the Elizabethan times, but the NSS believe that the state should be separated from religion.

He added: ““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.”

The council has requested permission to appeal the decision.