Judgement reserved over Bideford Town Council prayers

A Devon council has defended its right to hold prayers before meetings.

Bideford Town Council spoke out after the National Secular Society (NSS) told the High Court its actions were "unlawful".

The council warned if the NSS action was upheld it could have "far-reaching consequences" - including the abolition of the Coronation Oath.

Earlier, Mr Justice Ouseley reserved judgment in the case to a date to be fixed.

The council is due to meet on 8 December and its agenda for that indicates prayers will be subject to "statutory regulation".

Acting on behalf of atheist and former Bideford councillor Cline Bone, David Wolfe told the High Court the NSS believed holding prayers within the formal part of the council's meeting was "an unlawful practice."

Mr Wolfe argued council members of no religion were being indirectly discriminated against and the council's insistence on prayers being said breached articles nine and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Mr Bone, who had previously tried and failed to have prayers stopped, said he felt "disadvantaged and embarrassed" by the practice.

But James Dingemans QC, for the council, said neither the NSS nor Mr Bone had suffered "disadvantage".

Councillors were "free to join or leave as they desire" and could "refuse to participate in prayers", he told the court.

Mr Dingemans said the NSS was pursuing a campaign, one aim of which was that the state should not "engage in religious activities".

He said the campaign was perfectly proper but "local democracy" in Bideford had rejected it - as had parliament.

Mr Dingemans warned of "far-reaching consequences" if the NSS succeeded in its campaign.

'Focus on matters'

"The Coronation Oath would need to be abolished, the council's involvement in services of remembrance would be prevented and chaplains would not be able to serve in HM Armed Forces," he said.

The NSS said it was inappropriate for the council to bring religion into a "secular environment" where civic business was being dealt with.

But George McLaughlan, a former clerk of the council, told the judge in a written statement that prayers were a "valuable part" of meetings.

"For some it is to seek guidance and help on the matters on the agenda to be discussed, while for others it is a time of quiet reflection and contemplation," he said.

"It enables all of us to focus on the matters at hand."

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