When Councillor Clive Bone of Bideford Town Council attempted to put a stop to the despicable discriminatory practice of formally beginning their meetings with prayers, the council dismissed his blathering and voted to continue with its divine exhortation and intercessions, as they have done for centuries. When Mr Bone was no longer a councillor, he got together with the National Secular Society to challenge the tradition of prayers constituting part of the council’s official business, and they won. Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, trumpeted: “This judgment is an important victory for everyone who wants a secular society, one that neither advantages nor disadvantages people because of their religion or lack of it.”
Mr Bone’s challenge was threefold: firstly, that Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, which makes provision for the statutory powers of local authorities, did not provide the vires for the council to hold prayers as part of its formal business; secondly, that the holding of prayers as practised by Bideford Town Council unlawfully discriminated against unbelieving Mr Bone; and thirdly, that the practice infringed Mr Bone’s human rights.
The High Court judgement by Mr Justice Ouseley on 10 February 2012 established that 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. If it were lawful, the manner in which the practice was carried out in Bideford neither infringed Mr Bone’s human rights nor discriminated indirectly against him on the grounds of his lack of religious belief. But, after centuries of divine invocation, Mr Justice Ouseley deemed “Prayers etc.” as part of the business agenda to be unlawful.
This somewhat irked Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.
Following the judgement, Mr Pickles fast-tracked the introduction of the general power of competence – to provide sufficient powers to enable principal local authorities in England to include prayers once again as part of their formal business, if they so wished. The power is now, in effect, for all principal local authorities in England (including London, district, county, metropolitan and unitary councils) and for certain parish councils which meet the eligibility conditions set out in The Parish Councils (Prescribed Conditions) Order 2012. The power enables councils to do anything that an individual could do unless it is specifically prohibited by law. These new flexibilities include the freedom to pray and hold prayers at the start of council meetings, should they wish. The power was brought into effect on 18th February 2012.
However, parish councils which do not meet the eligibility criteria (ie where members are mainly elected and there is a qualified clerk) are still without sufficient powers to enable them to include prayers as an item of business. As a result, Eric Pickles and HM Government are supporting a Private Members’ Bill to remedy the situation.
Today Jake Berry MP – a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship – introduces the Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill for its Second Reading. Its stated purpose is to “Make provision about the inclusion at local authority meetings of observances that are, and about powers of local authorities in relation to events that to any extent are, religious or related to a religious or philosophical belief.” No doubt this will irritate and annoy the trumpeting humanist-secularist lobby which seeks to expunge all expression of religion and spirituality from public life. But Mr Pickles doesn’t mind that: he tends to defend Christian traditions and stand up for churches whenever he can, especially where a matter falls under his aegis. You may not always agree with him, but no secretary of state over the past four-and-a-half years has done more to bolster freedom of religion.
The Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill will make explicit the right of English local authorities (and a range of other English bodies such as fire and rescue authorities, integrated transport authorities and combined authorities) to include “Prayers etc.” as an item of business should they wish to do so. It further aims to allow these bodies to support, facilitate, or be represented at religious or similar events. No longer will there be a right in English law to object to an authority participating in (say) the annual commemoration of Remembrance Sunday, which might have a religious dimension.
Eric Pickles has been consistent and clear that the 2012 decision by the High Court represents an unacceptable marginalisation of Christianity in the public sphere. Its prohibition is an expression of illiberal and intolerant secularism. The Secretary of State believes that Christianity continues to play an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. He is clear that there should be respect for those of other faiths as well as for those of none. But freedom of religion is a fundamental and hard-fought liberty, and he understands how it is inextricably enmeshed and entwined with political freedom.