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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  • Comment number 1196.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 1195.

    What about the rights of the people who want to pray? are their rights not being breached?
    It is just another nail in the COFFIN of England.
    Sharia law will rule this country soon

  • Comment number 1194.

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

  • Comment number 1193.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 1192.

    Couldn't there have been a compromise whereby the prayers were replaced by beach volleyball? Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1191.

    All I have to say is how much did this cost the local taxpayers? All becuase one person could not ignore the prayers and /or be excused during their saying. Typical of a councillor to waste local authority funds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1190.

    I would presume that there would have been a meeting where this was discussed, Mr Bone didnt get his way, and therefore decided to take the litigious route in order that he get what he wanted. Nothing like a tolerant democratic society ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 1189.

    I am an atheist, but if an organisation felt the need to say prayers before a meeting, I would either stand quietly, or arrange to turn up those few minutes late for the meeting.

    I would not be so selfish as to complain and bring a court case costing tax payers money. Clive Bone obviously does not have the tolerance required of a councillor. Perhaps he will lose his seat next time round?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1188.

    What a waste of time and money. Just who did this hurt?

    Why couldn't Mr Bone just ignore the silly little ritual like I would of? As for feeling 'disadvantaged and embarrassed' get a grip mate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1187.

    I'm not bothered about religion one way or another The problem I have is that when councils are moaning about money why did this even get to the crown court, It must have cost thousands to sort out, It doesn't show that the council are religious zealots or not It just shows their incompetence with taxpayers money, If it was a business they would get fired, Sack them all at the next election.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1186.

    State and religion should be kept separate . . . . world does not seem to be getting any better since foundational institutions kicked out religion. People need to realise we were at our best as a country when a majority of people in this country had a genuine belief.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1185.

    Having read a few of the editors's picks it would seem that there is a case for all praying to be banned prior to the meetings in order to avoid a club within a club which may adversely affect council business outcomes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1184.

    Good to see that in these times of services being cut and jobs being lost Mr Bone has managed to find an excellent use of the residents of Bideford and the general taxpayer's money. A Bone of contention?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1183.

    I am an Atheist. And that means I do not believe in any God. as far as I am concerned, the UK consists of Christian countries, and if you do not stand up for the Christian religion instead of eroding it, you’re out-spoken rants may see you stoned or beheaded, when it comes to my Country, I am a Christian, Now for me, I don’t get offended if people wish to pray, that is their HUMAN RIGHT.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1182.

    Atheism is a religion. It is a belief that there is no God. Atheist proactively try to convert people to their religion. Therefore one religious point of view is trumping another, that is religious oppression not freedom.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1181.

    wher is the freedom for those who believe in God -- what if they object and say we don't think this man has any right to believe what he does --

  • rate this

    Comment number 1180.

    This ruling is a nonsense and I hope Mr Bone had no help from the taxpayer in wasting court time. It is perfectly acceptable for the council to have prayers beforehand, asking for guidance in their deliberations. If Mr Bone objected, all he had to do was remain outside the chamber until prayers were over and council business began.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1179.

    The belief that religion & state should be separated is just that - a belief.

    So in insisting on religion & state being separate the Secular Society are imposing their views on the majority. They couldn't do it through the ballot box & are now behaving undemocraticaly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1178.

    Very sad yet again a minority have sway. For all Prime Minister's encouragenet of Christian England we have those just looking for every opportunity of erasing, this time, prayers at Council Meetings. What's been an established part of proceedings thrown in confusion. Why cant folk like sad Bone be a little accommodating majority? And how do folk like Bone know that prayers do not help?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1177.

    I can understand why this judgement was made, but it's still very sad that people have so little respect for an old tradition. Why should we be so ashamed of our Christian heritage? After all, the Queen is Head of the Church of England. Presumably if Council Members had agreed to start the meeting with Islamic prayers no one would have dared to apply for that decision to be overturned.


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