The High Court today ruled the prayers held by the Bideford town council, Devon, before their meetings as unlawful under the Local Government Act 1972.
The council’s practice was challenged by the National Secular Society after receiving complaints from Clive Bone, former Bideford councillor and atheist.
He later resigned from his position citing the council’s “refusal to adjust” its prayer policy as the reason.
The society argued that the non-religious members of the council were being discriminated, breaching their human rights as stated by articles 9 and 14 of the Act, which protects the individual’s right to freedom of conscience and safeguards them from inequity.
But the case was not won on the human rights ground but rather the council’s lack of legislation permitting the religious exercise regardless of their beliefs.
Mr Justice Ouseley, sitting in London ruled: “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.”
The judge further elaborated the council’s lack of “specific power to say prayers” as part of the assembly and the majority voting to retain the prayers by no means gave them any legit authority to continue with their practice.
He also acknowledged the council’s attendance at prayers being “optional” recognising the councillors’ religious diversity and their will to miss the prayers.
But this turned the council meeting “into a partial gathering” of likeminded, indifferent or – as in the case of Mr Bone – “too embarrassed to leave in public”.
“That cannot satisfy section 111. The same objection does not apply to a few minutes silent reflection on the duties ahead, which each can observe in their own way.”
The ruling was met with disappointment by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles who reiterated England as a Christian country whilst “respecting” and “welcoming” other religions.
He said: “Public authorities – be it Parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish. The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty.”
Mr. Bone however, was pleased by the ruling and said: “I am delighted. It shows that the rule of law is to apply. The law was unclear but now it is not. Local authorities do not have the power to conduct prayers.”