Councils win prayer 'rights' as Localism Act powers fast tracked, ministers say


Communities Secretary Eric Pickles: "I don't think anyone is forced to sit through our prayer sessions"

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The government is activating a power it says will allow councils in England to hold prayers at meetings.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles says he is "effectively reversing" the High Court's "illiberal ruling" that a Devon council's prayers were unlawful.

He says part of the Localism Act that aims to give councils greater powers and freedom will be brought in early.

The National Secular Society questioned the act's reach and said the move could be challenged in court.

The group opposes prayers in "a secular environment concerned with civic business".

Earlier this month, in response to legal action brought by the society, the High Court ruled that Bideford Town Council had acted unlawfully by allowing prayers to be said during meetings.

Mr Justice Ouseley said that, under the Local Government Act 1972, the council had no powers to hold prayers as part of a formal meeting.

The controversial judgement has been regarded by many as an example of the marginalisation of Christianity, as well as a test case that has applied to councils in England and Wales since 10 February. Bideford Town Council has said it would appeal against the ruling.

'Wake-up call'
Bideford Town Council Bideford Town Council is to appeal against the High Court's ruling

The government argues that it was not intention or will of Parliament for this act from 40 years ago to be used to prohibit prayers.

"The High Court judgement has far wider significance than just the municipal agenda of Bideford Town Council," said Mr Pickles.

"By effectively reversing that illiberal ruling, we are striking a blow for localism over central interference, for freedom to worship over intolerant secularism, for Parliamentary sovereignty over judicial activism, and for long-standing British liberties over modern-day political correctness."

He added that the Bideford council case should be "a wake-up call".

"For too long, the public sector has been used to marginalise and attack faith in public life, undermining the very foundations of the British nation. But this week, the tables have been turned."

The Localism Act 2011 establishes a "general power of competence" enabling councils legally to do anything an individual could do unless specifically prohibited by law.

Start Quote

Council prayers increasingly look set to become a battle between the government and the courts at ever higher levels”

End Quote Keith Porteous Wood National Secular Society

The communities secretary has fast-tracked the parliamentary order activating the power, hoping it will "give councils that want to continue holding formal prayers the confidence and legal standing to do so".

The power can be exercised by all major local authorities in England from Saturday, and should be available to smaller town and parish councils - like Bideford - by the end of March.

The National Secular Society had called the High Court ruling "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".

In response to Mr Pickles' latest statement, its executive director Keith Porteous Wood said: "A number of senior lawyers have expressed doubt whether the Localism Act will, as Mr Pickles hopes, make prayers lawful, and the Act was clearly not passed with that express intention.

"His powers to pass legislation are not, as he implies, untrammelled. Council prayers increasingly look set to become a battle between the government and the courts at ever higher levels."

The Localism Act's "general power of competence" does not apply to Welsh councils, but the Welsh Assembly Government does have the power to legislate in this area.


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  • Comment number 54.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    I really hate it how Christians in this country seem to define religious freedom as their right to shove their religion down my throat.

    Oh, 46. joshua0015 - He wouldn't use all caps, thats for sure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    And we take ten steps back...

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Totally depressing and as a tax paying atheist I find this very offensive. To all those 'reborns' posting, isn't church the place for prayers and town hall the place to manage civic society? Get a grip and stop imposing your brain washed values on the rest of society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    I thought that in terms of the numbers attending a place of worship regularly that Muslims numerically beat Christians in this country. So next is non Christian ritual taking place somewhere. I wonder how the Christians will like that. Not a lot I suspect.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    This is indeed depressing. If I wish to worship and adore the fairies at the bottom of my garden, I should be able to do so, but I wouldn't expect to import this habit into the running of a modern civic society, particularly if I claimed to represent a population partly or mainly composed of non-adorers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    A Government minister wants to reverse a ruling in a local case because "we are striking a blow for localism over central interference", and want to force people to attend prayers when they don't want to because he's fighting for "freedom to worship over intolerant secularism".

    Anyone else spot the complete hypocrisy in these two statements?

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    There are two issues here: one is the question as to whether religious activities have any place in the formal, secular business of a council; the other is the proposal by the Communities Secretary to reverse a High Court ruling with which he happens to disagree. Mr Pickles should think very carefully before "effectively reversing" a ruling of this importance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.


  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    We can see where this is going: no-one will be forced to attend these prayers, but you can bet that those who don't participate will have their cards marked, and will be passed over when it comes to promotion, or put forward for redundancies etc. Then we can look forward to all the claims for compensation, wasting our resources, and forcing further Council tax rises. Leave religion out of work!

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    It says somewhere, dont stand on the street corners with the noisy and self righteous , I suggest that both sides in this do exatly that and stop trying to tell everybody else what is the right and proper thing to believe.
    Why does secularism exhibit all the religiuos fever it claims to abhour? wierd eh!

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    i thought the ruling was the prayer could not be part of the formal meeting ie an agenda item,

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Unfortunately a multi-cultural society is always going to be a society that moans. This one moans WELL.

    If you don't like what others do, I'm sure you aren't shackled and forced to take part. Infact I'm sure they'll hold the door for you so it doesn't hit you on your way out. Out for what, 30 seconds? Sheesh.

    'You cannot build your peaceful church here! It offend!'

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    I think it is brilliant news, as a born again christian for 22 years. This country needs healing from crime, high unemployment and financial mess. I pray for a HOLY SPIRIT REVIVAL in this country. I love Jesus. Jesus Christ is LORD. THANK GOD FOR JESUS. THANK YOU FOR THE CROSS WHO PAID FOR OUR SINS AND THAT WE MIGHT HAVE ETERNAL LIFE THROUGH JESUS CHRIST WHO IS LORD ALL. GOD IS GOOD. AMEN.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I welcome Pickles' actions here. However, I would like councils to provide me with a human sacrifice so I can practice my religious beliefs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Excellent news - a little bit of common sense and a rebuttal of all the politically correct dogma that the hand wringers inflict on us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    common_sense I think you will find that Mr Pickles is devoid of common sense on this issue. I have a feeling that yet again we are following the USA. The next thing will be excluding Darwin from discussion in the classroom to be replaced by passages from the bible. Mr Pickles should stick to what he is paid to do, ensuring dustbins are emptied regularly, anything else is above his pay scale.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    I see no harm in holding a minute's silence before beginning council business — it would probably make the ensuing discussion more productive — but saying prayers is an entirely different matter.

    At a committee meeting in a mosque, church, or temple saying prayers would be appropriate, but council business should remain secular.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    As long as people dont have to attend if they dont want to then those that do should be able to, personally that would be an extra coffee for me but I wouldnt be attending for anyone

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    It says in the Bible by their works you shall know them. Jesus taught tolerance, love thy neighbour, and nonviolence. Unfortunately people who publicly profess to be Christians often do the opposite. Public demonstrations of faith like prayers before a council meeting are divisive and hypocritical. Religion has no part in the life of most councilors except for this rather meaningless formality.


Page 49 of 51


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