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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  • rate this

    Comment number 354.

    If this is the thin-end of a wedge then, at some point in the future, the UK will have a political+faith leader like the self-blinded, dangerous chumps that the usa elects.

    There you only have to say you 'feel the presence o'jesus' in the right speech to get the usa into a war, helping genocide or get helicopters brimming with trained death-squads flying into a country to kill!

    Mmm! Morality!

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    All you need is a bit of common sense. Let the Chriatian councillors hold their prayer meeting first and then the others can join them for the Council Meeting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.

    Victory for common sense - we are a christian country where faith is an important part. I would however hope that councils allow those that want to sit in silence the right to do so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 351.

    It is up to the people present whether they wish to participitate in prayers or not. However, in a democracy the majority decision should hold sway. If the minority do not wish to pray, they do not have to. It is not beyond the wit of man to hold prayers before a meeting commences. The National Secular Society hounds people who have and wish to practice their beliefs. That is undemocratic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    This is absolutely outrageous. We are supposed to be outlawing discrimination and here we have a Government Minister promoting one group above others. There is no place for the superstitious mumbo jumbo that is religion in any government at any level. To say one group is right case they pray is wrong in so many ways. Eric Pickles has stepped seriously out of line.

  • rate this

    Comment number 349.

    If anyone thinks the combination of religion and politics in the UK is a good thing, then may I recommend reading about Charles Bradlaugh who was elected four times as an MP but was refused access to the House of Commons and improsoned because he wouldn't swear an oath to a god. It is precisely because of religious interference in politics that the National Secular Society has existed since 1866.

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    I'm an active Christian and I welcome the opportunity for prayers prior to council meetings, but at the same time I do not think it right that non-Christians should be expected to attend these prayers. How uncomfortable or resentful could that make some? There should be a separate time and room where people can offer up their prayers prior to the meeting and then go into the meeting itself.

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    I attended my local church and a council meeting broke out.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 346.

    I pray that all religion would go out of our lives altogether. Then all of these silly arguments would go out of our lives altogether and we could then do something constructive with our lives. Amen

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    How telling. The government pretends that it has respect for everyone, yet reverses an important ruling to side with a single stream of unjustified belief. If you want true multi-culturalism, keep religion private and use secularism as the medium in which all individuals can act without being forced to partake in non-scientific ritualizing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    We have a prayer room at work and I have used it, I am a christian and I have made an awesome muslim friend by going in there and we share a common bond of faith. we pray in there together, we pray to the same god but in a different way and we talk about our faith in there too. But its a time of prayer and reflection, we are not working, we are not making decisions! Prayers at meetings?? why??

  • rate this

    Comment number 343.

    I cannot wait for the first member of the Mevlevi Order, or, the non-conformist Ranters to be elected. Now that would put an edge on the start of a council meeting.

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.

    In the spirit of ecumencalism I'd like to see someone insist on a Satanic black mass before a council meeting- come on ALL 'faith' is a good thing isn't it

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    This is an odious decision by Councillor Pickles. If a majority of Moslem councillors insisted on a reading from the Koran at the start of their meeting, Pickles and his ilk would be the first to squeal. But, hey, it's a great chance to ram home the fact that Britain is not now a fundamentally Christian society. I look forward to the debate and pointing out that nobody goes to church anymore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    @VoiceofReason (319) "atheism is also a belief system" - No it's not. Atheism is an absence of belief in god(s). That's it. Besides which, the issue isn't about atheism, but secularism, and the two aren't the same thing. Had the council been invoking Satan, Allah, Quetzalcoatl or Zeus rather than some other supernatural entity, Pickles would be singing a very different tune right now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    If saying prayers is part of the formal council meeting then won't we be paying for it?
    Should hold them at the end (if they have to), and not in official time, so that those not wishing to take part in communicating with non-existent can go home.
    Pity "God" does not have a "press 1 for forgiveness, press 2 tor health, etc" - sure they would get fed up then

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    Just what we need. An invitation for segregation. What if you don't believe in that particular god? What if you don't believe in a diety? Will you then be ostracised? Probably.
    There is no place for religion(the most devisive thing in the world) in UK politics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    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.

    That's it then. The local Council acted illegally and MP Pickles is stepping in to ensure that the Law is upheld.

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    Ouija boards issued at the doors would make better sense based on some of the decisions that councils make!

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    I don't see an issue here unless people are thinking that prayer can be done during working hours? I wouldn't like to think we are paying for people to take time off to pray! It's not just cut backs - councillers - it's getting value for our high bills!


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