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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Billericay Town Council votes to keep its meetings secular

Billericay Town Council has voted to keep its meetings secular after a Christian councillor tried to introduce prayers at the start.

The motion was tabled by councillor Susan McCaffery, who told The Billericay Gazette: “When you see the stories about the stock market crash, when you get the riots, the killing, if you have not got God what have you got? I just felt it was so apt. I thought we have got a lot of churches in Billericay, a lot of people go to church so it‘s something I would have thought a lot of people would be happy about."

Under her motion, a local minister would lead the prayer.

“If you are contacting God in your deliberations you have His wisdom and guidance in the decisions that you make," she said.

The Council chairman, John Buchanan, explained that the prayers would be to “ask God to help the councillors make their decisions and to make good the decisions for the people of the town."

The proposition was defeated seven votes to three.

Opposing the motion, councillor Pamela Went, said prayers would be “inappropriate".

“The council meeting has nothing to do with religion. If people want to pray let them pray in their own time not in the time we are using for residents," she said. “My view is that the Billericay town council is a secular organisation and we represent the people of Billericay who have a multitude of faiths or no faith,” she said. “All the people of Billericay are invited to attend a council meeting. The idea of having a Christian prayer when you could be having people of different faiths or atheists there, including members of the town council themselves, I thought was inappropriate. I respect everybody who has a faith but I am against it being forced on the council or anybody who attends the meeting."

Councillor Edgar Guest also voted against the idea, but suggested those who wanted to pray could arrive at the meeting early to do so. Mr Guest said: “This council has always been non-party political and secular. I respect people who have religious beliefs of different denominations. Introducing a prayer meeting within the council meeting could be divisive. They could do it before the council meeting. It would not offend anybody and it would satisfy people who feel a prayer meeting would be beneficial and it would not coerce others to attend a religious service they didn‘t want to attend."

The National Secular Society is launching a challenge in the High Court about the legitimacy of council prayers. The case is due to be heard on 17 November, and the NSS hopes that it will have national implications.

Published Fri, 19 Aug 2011