13 December 2017


The small town of Bideford is located on the North Devon coast near the mouth of the River Torridge. Since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I the local town council has opened its meetings with prayer. This long-established tradition is not unique to Bideford Town Council. In 2010 the Daily Mail newspaper surveyed 181 councils in England & Wales and found that 118 of them started their meetings with a prayer, of which nearly all were Christian.

Although the practice dates back to the 1600s, the Council has twice in recent years voted by majority decision to continue the practice of opening proceedings in prayer. The register of attendance was not taken until after the prayers had finished, and individual councillors were free, if they so wished, not to participate in the prayers. No councillor was obligated to take part against their wishes.

However a former councillor and an atheist campaign group, the National Secular Society, combined forces to take Bideford Council to court to outlaw the practice. The National Secular Society argued that the practice infringes the human rights of non-religious people.

In their legal submission the secularists put forward three main arguments: (1) that the prayers were discriminatory against atheist councillors, (2) that the prayers were a breach of human rights legislation, and (3) that the council had no lawful authority to hold prayers as part of its formal meetings.

In his ruling in February the judge, Mr Justice Ouseley, dismissed the claims that the saying of prayers was discriminatory or a breach of equality and human rights laws. However, sadly, he ruled that “The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a Council is not lawful under Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue”.

The Act does allow councils to do anything that “facilitates, or is conducive or is incidental” to a council’s functions, but Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that the saying of prayers at formal meetings does not fall within that provision.

If councillors are not compelled to pray, the judge reasoned, then prayers cannot be an essential part of a council’s functions and therefore should not be part of the formal council meeting.

Christian Institute spokesman, Simon Calvert, said: “it is extraordinary to rule that councils have no lawful authority to choose, if they so wish, to start their formal meetings with prayers. That is simply wrong. The logic of the ruling is that councils would also be going beyond the law if they took a vote and decided to start each formal council meeting with the national anthem. There is no way that Parliament, when it passed the Local Government Act 40 years ago, intended it to be used to outlaw prayers”.

“This case was brought by a campaign group that wants to drive Christianity out of public life, and the High Court has given them great encouragement to take matters further. It is high time Parliament put a stop to this assault upon our national heritage. What’s next? Will prayers at the cenotaph end up in court?”

The court’s decision has been widely criticised by elected politicians in the UK. Labour MP Chris Bryant branded the ruling ‘utterly preposterous’, and said that he would consider tabling a bill to oppose the ruling himself.

Conservative MP Tim Loughton said: “if you don’t like prayers at council meetings don’t go to them – simple. But don’t spoil it for the majority who do appreciate it”.

The Secretary of State for Local Government in England, Eric Pickles MP, disputed the ruling, affirming that “the right to worship is a fundamental and hard fought British liberty”. Within days he had fast-tracked new legislation which restores the right of local authorities to say prayers at official meetings if they wish to. The Government distributed a circular to all councils in England explaining the new legislation and declaring that Britain was “not strengthened by the secularisation of civil life”.

Atheist activists who pursue legal cases against local councils that democratically decide to open meetings with prayer are unlikely to have any qualms about taking cases against other manifestations of Christianity in public life.

Last year the National Secular Society published a report criticising the funding of hospital chaplains in the NHS. Faith-based schools and acts of Christian worship at school assemblies are often the subject of criticism by atheists in the public arena.

In I Timothy 2:1-4 Christians are called to pray for kings and all that are in authority. The reason given is so that Christians may be free to live lives that are quiet, peaceful, and godly, and free to share the gospel in public. Decisions taken by governments and law courts can make it easier or harder for Christians to live godly lives. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Callum Webster