The judgement has been attacked by numerous religious figures, as well as by Communities minister Eric Pickles, who described it as “illiberal and intolerant.”
The point these people are missing, however, is that Mr Justice Ouseley was correct. The law is actually quite clear: local authorities have only those powers which Parliament has specifically granted them, and these do not include the power to say prayers – of any religion – during formal business.
The judge really had no choice. The prayers being said in meetings of Bideford Town Council, in Devon, were illegal.
The issue at stake was a very technical point of local government law and the council’s dire warning of “far-reaching consequences including the abolition of the Coronation Oath” sounds bizarrely far-fetched – and also not much of a warning, since life would probably continue to be bearable even if the Coronation Oath were abolished.
Nevertheless, there is little question that the prayers were illegal. A more interesting question is, should they be illegal? As a religious person myself, I would say “yes”.
In a typical session of Bideford Council, everyone in attendance would stand while the Mayor paraded in to open the meeting officially.
He would then invite a Minister from a local church to conduct prayers lasting a few minutes, after which the main part of the meeting would begin.
Bideford’s lawyers said that because Councillors were entitled to leave during the prayers without receiving any adverse entry on their attendance records, as they would for leaving during any other part of the meeting, the prayers were not being unfairly imposed upon them.
However, as Cllr. Peter Bone – who brought the case against the council – pointed out, it can be “embarrassing and inconvenient” for non-Christian members to leave the room immediately after the Mayor enters.
It would create a bad impression to the public and the local reporters present in the audience. Perhaps more worryingly, Cllr. Bone claims that those who did not feel comfortable participating in prayers were effectively barred from becoming Mayor (an office which ironically has the formal title ‘The Worshipful Mayor of Bideford’!), as they would be expected to join in with the ceremony.
While Devon no doubt has a fairly high proportion of Christian residents, many other parts of the UK do not.
The Lord Mayor of Bradford is a Muslim. The Mayor of Whitby is Jewish. And the Lord Mayor of Leicester is so confirmed an atheist that in 2010, he refused to attend a cathedral service welcoming him to his new role.
The electorate is, quite rightly, electing people to local authorities regardless of their religion.
Clearly the Great British public do not mind having representatives who do not consider themselves part of the Christian “culture, heritage and fabric of our nation” spoken of by Eric Pickles.
It seems distinctly intolerant and mean-spirited for a Christian majority of councillors to insist that their religious beliefs are normalised into public life.
Although Bideford Council has twice made decisions to retain prayers as part of its formal business, the voting results were 9-6 and 10-5 respectively: hardly landslide majorities.
It would be much more tolerant and civilised of those religious members of the council to forego their prayers so as to avoid making their non-Christian and secular counterparts uncomfortable.
Non-secular people do not have to pray at every opportunity any more than non-vegetarian people have to eat meat at every meal.
A council official, George McLauchlan, told the High Court that the prayers were necessary “to seek guidance on the matters on the agenda.”
On its December agenda, Bideford Council discussed weighty topics such as where to locate salt-bins; car-parking in Truro; and the closure of some public toilets.
Then the Town Clerk asked the 16 Councillors to suggest questions that he could put into the ‘quiz corner’ of the next town newsletter.
I am confident that Bideford’s elected representatives will rise to the challenge of confronting these arduous duties without receiving spiritual guidance immediately beforehand.