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 1136.

    Prayer or focused thought before important meetings should always be acceptable. Before we meet daily on our eco-tourism project in Sierra Leone there are Christian & Muslim prayers said together. Tolerance works.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1135.

    It is unbelievable that in 2012 people still think they can impose their own religious beliefs onto others whilst at work.
    What is more worrying is that these are the people making vital decisions in our local authorities!!
    Those involved should be ashamed and never allowed to hold office again. I have a feeling they will instead be complaining they are being persecuted in some way though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1134.

    There should be no problem with public prayer in a statistically Christian country (come on all you closet agnostics and atheists, declare yourselves!) but it has no place in the way our democratic multi-cultural society is governed. Any compulsion to defer to any god should be accommodated beforehand and separately, not as part of the statutory agenda.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1133.

    Prime Minister David Cameron has said the UK is a Christian country "and we should not be afraid to say so"
    The PM said it was wrong to suggest that standing up for Christianity was "somehow doing down other faiths".

    And he staunchly defended the role of religion in politics and said the Bible in particular was crucial to British values.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1132.

    As a side note, Atheism/ Secularism ISN'T a belief system. It's a view point, but we don't BELIEVE in anything. That's like say someone who is heterosexual is really homosexual... no, they're not. They are disparate and mutually exclusive. Atheism does not amount to a belief, it is 0 belief. Sheesh, get your facts straight! :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 1131.

    The may have been praying for the fact that the public wouldn't hear about the raise in Council Tax they're planning to administer .... who knows!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1130.

    Far more serious is the fact that people speaking in court have to swear an oath on the bible. It's perfectly obvious that the words of those who choose not to do this will not be believed as much as those who do. So you have the ridiculous situation that an atheist with moral conscience is believed less than a "pretend christian" happy to lie under oath. (Any well known figures spring to mind?)

  • rate this

    Comment number 1129.

    Presumably it is also illegal to ask a witness in court to swear on a Bible."

    Witnesses are given the choice of which holy book they wish to swear on or whether to "affirm".

  • rate this

    Comment number 1128.

    Unfortunately when you separate religon from the workplace you get events such as;
    1. The 2008 economic crisis driven by greed
    2. MP expenses scandal

    A society without God will be heading for destruction

  • rate this

    Comment number 1127.

    If politicians want to involve personal religious beliefs in decision making, I suggest they make this a lot clearer in their manifestos so we can vote accordingly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1126.

    The pernicious superstitious nonsense of religion has no place in society at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1125.

    Hold on a minute! What's all this about equality then? If the athiest in question doesn't want to pray before a council meeting he/she doesn't have to. When I was at school we had an athiest child in my class. She was allowed to stay in the classroom during assembly. Are they now going to have to ban school assemblies (assuming they aren't already)

  • rate this

    Comment number 1124.

    Being agnostic, i would just like to commend the principle here, that as a secular nation prayer should be a matter for your private life and have nothing to do with public office or the running of such offices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1123.

    This is brilliant! The great and the good blather on about this being a Christian Country...fair enough. I'm not Christian myself, but I'll accept that. And then this. You're either a Christian Country, or you're not. If you are, then stand your ground and stick up for your identity. People coming here to live are just left feeling confused. What are you lot about?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1122.

    You cannot have religion and politics or state seperate form each other . The foundation of our government and for many of our laws we have in place in our current society came from people who had a religion and faith.The fact that free education for all ,welfare state and hospitals and end to slavery was the result of christians pushing for reform.Secularism is a belief being forced on us too.

  • Comment number 1121.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 1120.

    I think it's about time. At school we were forced to sing religious songs and when I didn't I was told off. I think there is no thought given to atheists beliefs and I have at first hand suffered prejudice from religious people in other situations as well!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1119.

    Christian nutjobs vs Athiest nutjobs, and who looses the council tax payers of Bidiford in particular, and taxpayers in general. A matter of this insignificance should never have got to the high court, and all individuals involved should be made to pay costs.

    The only winners, Lawyers, and they in my opinion, are the worst nutjobs off all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1118.

    1052. nickson
    Lets not forget - without God there would be no 'Human'.

    Right on dude.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1117.

    what is wrong with prayers before a council meeting NONE what harm is it doing none I person complains and he is right you could not make this up


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