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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Council Prayers Campaign: Frequently Asked Questions

Our campaign to see an end to worship at council meetings has generated a great deal of media interest and, unsurprisingly, a fair amount of criticism from certain quarters. Here we explain the campaign and our reasons for initiating a judicial review.

What’s wrong with councils saying prayers at meetings?

We regard acts of worship in council meetings as a key secular issue concerning the separation of religion from politics. We argue that it is wholly inappropriate for a group of publicly-elected members to appear corporately to subscribe to any religious beliefs, or to privilege a particular belief.

For local democracy to be representative, it is imperative that a council reflects and serves the diversity of a community and moves away from practices that could deter full involvement from all sections of that community. We are aware of potential candidates who will not put their names forward for election, simply because they would be expected to participate in prayers. This deprives local democracy of much-needed new blood and diversity. For councillors who do still come forward to represent their communities, prayers can create a sense of exclusion.

Our legal advisers argue that the practice breaches the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The right to practise, or to choose not to practise, a religious belief is recognised by the ECHR and as such is worthy of defence and protection in what is an increasingly secular society.

How many councils start their meeting with prayers?

From our research we estimate that just over half of all UK Councils right up to county and regional level begin their official proceedings with prayers. The vast majority of these conduct Christian prayers, others have a multi-faith element.

Isn’t banning prayers restricting people’s freedom to worship?

We are in no way seeking to restrict freedom of worship. If some council members want to pray, we think that should be a private matter and there is no problem with them doing so before council meetings. We do however think it unreasonable to insist that anyone’s religious beliefs should be imposed on others. Religious worship has no place in a secular debating chamber that exists to serve all sections of the community, regardless of their religious beliefs, or indeed lack of them.

But participation in prayers is optional, so what’s the problem?

We consider it inappropriate that non-believers and people of other religions taking part in local democracy are put in the difficult and potentially embarrassing position of having to decide whether to participate or pointedly not participate. It has been suggested that councillors not wishing to participate should “twiddle their thumbs”, or leave the chamber, but walking out without a specific invitation may be misinterpreted by members of the public. Some non-religious councillors find public professions of faith or the need to ask for divine guidance in order to do a job properly to be offensive. We believe that such observances alienate councillors who do not share the faith being celebrated. We also believe that such observances send a message to the public at large, including those who the public body serves, that it values one faith, and those who profess that faith, above others.

Why are you targeting Bideford?

The NSS didn’t seek out Bideford Town Council. We were approached by a local Councillor in Bideford who told us that the Town Council started normal meetings of the full Council with prayers. He had complained to the Council about the prayers, his views were shared by some other councillors and he knew of potential councillors who were put off from standing for election by the prayers. We therefore raised the matter with the Town Council.

Our lawyers wrote on our behalf to Bideford Council setting out in detail why they considered Bideford to be acting outside of the law in saying prayers during council meetings. We did not even receive an acknowledgement. The National Association of Local Councils had earlier advised Bideford that such actions may be illegal, but the Council appear determined to disregard any material which challenges their clear desire to conduct prayers, come what may. Unfortunately none of the matters raised by the NSS were substantively addressed by Bideford Town Council. It became clear to us that the Council was wholly unwilling to discuss the issue of prayers to see if a sensible compromise could be found. We therefore decided to seek a judicial review to determine whether Bideford Town Council is acting illegally.

What exactly is a judicial review?

A judicial review is a mechanism for challenging the decision of a public body. Judicial review can be applied for in relation to any public body, including government departments, local authorities, the police and any organisation exercising a public function. The grounds for such cases will usually be that the body acted illegally or irrationally or that the decision was reached unfairly because of a defect in the procedure which led to the decision.

Our lawyers advise us that the practice of a local authority saying prayers during meetings is unlawful and we have therefore instructed them to initiate a judicial review.

What justification have Bideford Town Council given for their position?

They believe that, having put the matter to the vote democratically, that should be the end of the matter. (Clearly if a council decides democratically to do something which is unlawful, that does not make it lawful.)
They also told us this is a national, not a local matter. (They are correct in that the outcome of the case will create a national precedent, but every council has the responsibility to act within the law, and cannot hide behind some national policy which they would like to exist but does not.)

Isn't defending council prayers going to cost Bideford a lot of money?

We understand that Bideford Town Council has accepted a legal firm’s offer to defend them and have agreed to use the services of Manchester firm Aughton Ainsworth, which previously defended Christian bed and breakfast owners who refused to accommodate a gay couple.

Tom Ellis, partner of Aughton Ainsworth, and QC James Dingemans offered to act on behalf of the council for free should the case get to court.

When we originally announced our intention to challenge Bideford, it was suggested that we were picking on a council who could not afford to defend themselves. As explained above, we did not pick Bideford, and as far as costs are concerned, the tables have completely turned. Bideford appears to be indemnified for costs whatever the outcome of the case, but we do not benefit from any indemnity at all.

What has been the reaction to your legal challenge?

The overwhelming reaction from our supporters has been very positive and we’ve seen a marked increase in donations to support our challenge in recent weeks.

The challenge has also generated a vast amount of media publicity which we welcome as this brings wider attention to secular arguments.

The usual cries of ‘Christianophobia’ have come from certain high profile Christians and fundamentalist lobby groups. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey launched a vocal attack on us in the national media accusing us of “attacking freedom”. However, all we are doing is seeking the court’s judgment on the legality of Council prayers and it is the courts who are, after all, the guardians of our freedom.