Bideford Town Council prayers ruled unlawful


Clive Bone: "Religious freedom is an absolute right, and so is freedom from religion"

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A Devon town council acted unlawfully by allowing prayers to be said at meetings, the High Court has ruled.

Action was brought against Bideford Town Council by the National Secular Society (NSS) after atheist councillor Clive Bone complained.

Mr Justice Ouseley ruled the prayers were not lawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972.

However, he said prayers could be said as long as councillors were not formally summoned to attend.

The judgement was being seen as a test case which could affect local councils across England and Wales.

Mr Justice Ouseley ruled the prayers as practised by Bideford Town Council had been unlawful because there was no statutory power permitting them to continue.

The NSS, which said prayers had no place in "a secular environment concerned with civic business", argued the "inappropriate" ritual breached articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect an individual's right to freedom of conscience and not to face discrimination.

'Bizarre ruling'

However, the case was not won on human rights grounds but on a point of statutory construction of local government legislation.


By and large, judges have been unsympathetic to the Christian case when people have argued that they don't want to do things like advising homosexual couples.

The tide has been flowing pretty firmly against Christianity in public life and it's caused huge concerns for the churches. They say it's being driven out of public life.

There is a lot of concern that this is not just about pure religion but this is about some of the values that underpin the British way of life.

Of course, from the other side, people like the National Secular Society say the Church and Christianity should not have undue privileges in having their values and their way of doing things upheld.

So there's an argument on both sides but certainly it's been very noticeable in the last few years that the tide's been turning against Christian practices which we've just taken for granted for centuries.

Mr Justice Ouseley said: "A local authority has no power under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, or otherwise, to hold prayers as part of a formal local authority meeting, or to summon councillors to such a meeting at which prayers are on the agenda."

He told the court: "There is no specific power to say prayers or to have any period of quiet reflection as part of the business of the council."

Referring to Bideford, he said: "The council has on two occasions by a majority voted to retain public prayers at its full meetings.

"But that does not give it power to do what it has no power to do."

The judge acknowledged the case raised issues of general public importance and gave the council permission to appeal.

Speaking after Friday's outcome, Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said the ruling was "surprising and disappointing".

He said: "Public authorities - be it Parliament or a parish council - should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish."

Anthony Inch, a Bideford town councillor and Torridge district councillor, said he hoped there would be an appeal leading to the ruling being overturned.

"I'm disgusted, surprised and saddened by the decision," he said.

Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, said: "We are pleased that the court has said the saying of prayers at meetings does not breach human rights laws.

"But it is bizarre that they should be declared unlawful because of the 1972 Local Government Act."

Simon Calvert: "We feel rather sad the court has given the National Secular Society some encouragement in their campaign"

He added: "The judge's finding that the Local Government Act doesn't give local authorities power to include prayers as part of their formal meetings - we think that's extraordinary.

"I mean we're talking about a practice that goes back to the Elizabethan era.

"And the logic of the judge's ruling may be that it could also be unlawful for a council to start its meeting with the beginning of the national anthem. It may even throw local authorities' Diamond Jubilee celebrations up in the air."

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society said: "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."

He added: "Acts of worship in council meetings are key to the separation of religion from politics, so we're very pleased with the judgment, and the clear secular message it sends - particularly the statement made about the 1972 Act."

'Great pity'

The Bishop of Exeter, the Right Reverend Michael Langrish, said he would encourage councils in his area to continue holding prayers before the start of their statutory business.

He added: "I think it's a great pity that a tiny minority are seeking to ban the majority, many of whom find prayers very, very helpful, from continuing with a process in which no-one actually has to participate."

The legal challenge was launched in 2010 after the NSS was contacted by Mr Bone, who was a Bideford town councillor at the time.

Mr Bone, who ended up leaving the council because of its "refusal to adjust" its prayers policy, said on Friday: "Quite frankly delighted. I'm not surprised, I expected to win.

"The law is the law and local authorities have to obey the law."

He added: "Local government is for everybody, it should be equally welcoming to everybody, whatever they believe.

"This has got nothing to do with intolerance towards religion.

"Religious freedom is an absolute right and so is freedom from religion an absolute right, in my view."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 556.

    Religion is at the roots of almost all the problems in the world. its about time it was taken out of public life. If parents want their children to pray in the morning then do it at home. all Religions should be kept out of school except in social or history lessons.

  • rate this

    Comment number 555.

    I love this when people who have no understanding of faith make judgements etc. Faith is part of me , I don't leave it at home, I go to work and watch sport and I ma still a Chriistian. Jesus stood up against those who would harm others,he provided support when we are low and down. If you don't believe -that's your choice, but don't criminalise, castigate or generally put down those who have faith

  • rate this

    Comment number 554.

    GeoMax (399)
    "I find the idea of teaching very young and impressionable children that fairytales are real is nothing short of brainwashing."

    ...your post got highly rated, but...

    Funnily enough, most children get told about Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and then a miracle happens.... they grow up AND MAKE UP THEIR OWN MINDS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 553.

    What is perhaps significant is that the anti-religion, religion should only play a part in peoples private lives seems to have gained so much more strength in recent years when society has become so much more multi-faith. The solution to the challanges this creates appears to be to ban all religious expression as has happened in Devon, as to give preference to one faith would be racist.

  • Comment number 552.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 551.

    No one is preventing anyone from holding a prayer session half an hour before the meeting, as an option for those who want it. Is not appropriate during the meeting. People who make a lot of fuss about public prayers have to think hard about why it matters to them that their prayers are 'observed'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 550.

    Surely it is the overwheming right of the majority to vote to say prayers before the session begins.I do mean overwhelming majority.this is one bitter the majority suffers? WHY! for Gods Sake!

    This political correctness is totally crazy! it really is
    I have never read such Crap as many of the statements above..get a life you sad lads

    Give peace a chance

  • rate this

    Comment number 549.

    @319 ProfPhoenix

    I am talking about a well published doctrine to attack christianity and other institutions, which is clearly set out by Gramsci and his followers. I am aware of Christian socialists, usually derided by socialist revolutionaries. My post cannot contain all views(I am not a christian)but I am indicating why the BBC is pushing the anti christian line.

  • rate this

    Comment number 548.

    Some balance please on the "Editors' Picks"?

    Disappointing that the Court overruled the democratically expressed wishes of the Council.

    I agree that religious practice can never be forced on anyone, but am alarmed by the comments here wanting to ban it from the workplace altogether. Enforced secularism is as bad as enforced religion - both are unilateral imposition of philosophical belief.

  • rate this

    Comment number 547.

    I don't really have a horse in this race but the people bemoaning that atheist fanatics are forcing their viewpoints onto the rest of society does amuse me though. Frankly fanatics of both sides annoy me equally but if we are tallying it up then I make that 2000 years versus about 10 in Christianity’s favour.

  • rate this

    Comment number 546.

    Religion simply doesn't belong in the workplace. Unless your workplace is a church, mosque etc. If you can't do your job without having to go off and pray somewhere, it's not the workplace's fault: you're in the wrong job.

    Collectively, our attitudes have hardened towards the religious over the years: we've had enough of religious extremism, we've seen where it leads.

  • rate this

    Comment number 545.

    I'm not even religious and I find this slightly absurd, not to mention a massive waste of money and time forced through by some local 'busy-body'. I can't see how anyone, in our supposedly tolerant society, would object to someone running through a traditional introduction, religious or non-religious. Doesn't Bone have better things to be doing with his and the council's time?

  • rate this

    Comment number 544.

    As a Christian I am surprised that so many comments on this article suggest that prayers should just be 'at home' or 'in church'. I believe God is everywhere and therefore I can pray to him anywhere. I believe people in this country have a right not to believe in God, but if people of faith are suppressed from practicing this faith in a sensitive manner then I fear for the future of this country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 543.

    Why is it that these article always describe such decisions as 'an attack on Christianity' when really all they are is protecting the rights of the secular. Allowing people to opt out of Christian activities is not 'driving religion out of public life', rather it's recognizing that in a free country belief is a choice.

    Anyone would think that religion needs state coercion in order to exist . . .

  • rate this

    Comment number 542.

    As others have said, I am astonished that this has got as far as legal action! I would like to know whether the Councillor had tried the obvious routes of excusing himself, sitting passively, or whether the Council refused to compromise.

    This is another notable mis-prioritised waste of time issue like the House Of Commons beer that should never have seen the light of day.

  • rate this

    Comment number 541.

    Times are tough, but if you're relying on God to help out at a council meeting, you're in the wrong job.

    Council chambers are for tangible things. Go to church if you want to pray.

  • Comment number 540.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 539.

    Prayers can be said in private, before entering a council meeting. There are proper places for 'organised prayer' meetings, just as there are proper places for smoking and comfort breaks. No wonder council workers have a reputation for spending working hours doing non-work, when their leaders are shown to do the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 538.

    I am an Atheist. I see this a victory for reason.

    If we are to be a tolerant society then everyone's beliefs ( or lack thereof) are to be considered. People who believe, do not upset or offend me but were I to be "Summoned" to prayer I can see that being a problem.

    Keep private beliefs out of the work environment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 537.

    The principle here is for all people to be welcomed and accepted. But we manage elsewhere to keep hold of historic traditions that remind us of our heritage without making people feel excluded? Why not here?

    Also, does this mean it will be illegal for a council that happens to consist only of Christians (or any other faith for that matter) to pray before they meet? This is surely a crazy ruling?


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