We think local government meetings should be conducted in a manner equally welcoming to all attendees, regardless of their individual religious beliefs or lack of belief. We therefore argue that religious worship should play no part in the formal business of council meetings.
Local Government (Religious Etc. Observances) Act
The Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Act made provision for the inclusion of prayers or "other religious observance" or "observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief" at local authority meetings.
The law was written to negate a High Court ruling that "The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a Council is not lawful under s111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue."
That judgement followed a Judicial Review initiated by the National Secular Society to challenge the practice of saying prayers as part of the formal business of council meetings in Bideford Town Council (Devon).
The ruling was an important step in recognition of secularism as a basis for equality in public life and public office. Simply, it ensured that all elected councillors, whatever their religious beliefs, would be treated with equal respect at council meetings.
The Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Act was sponsored by Conservative MP Jake Berry, a supporter of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, but was prepared by the Department for Communities and Local Government, led then by the evangelical Eric Pickles who insists Britain is a "Christian country".
The Act's supporters claim that the Bill promotes religious freedom. We believe the opposite to be true.
Allowing acts of worship to be imposed in a secular environment, as the Act does, is incompatible with a genuine commitment to religious freedom. The Act enables a majority of councillors to impose their beliefs and acts of worship on other councillors, and can, in effect, impose religion by 'tyranny of the majority'.
Religious freedom protects both freedom of religion and belief. It protects an individual's rights to manifest their religion, but should not extend to allowing believers to impose acts of worship on those that do not share their faith.
The absence of prayers from the formal business of local authority meetings doesn't impede the religious freedoms of believers or deny anybody the right to pray. The former legal position simply prevented local authorities from summoning councillors to religious observance at council meetings and imposing it on those that do not wish it.
Local politics should be equally welcoming to all sections of society. Local government meetings should be conducted without anyone feeling compelled to participate in prayers, or feeling excluded, or that they have to absent themselves from any part of the meeting.
We fear this legislation opens the door to wholly unnecessary conflict and sectarian squabbles within local authorities.
This legislation was not properly debated, nor did it receive serious scrutiny or consideration in parliament, with MPs on the Public Bill Committee failing in their duty to properly consider the implications of this wholly unnecessary and divisive legislation.
If local authorities wish to hold a moment of silent reflection at the beginning of a meeting, or if councillors wish to meet for prayers prior to the meeting, they should be at liberty to do so but no change in the law was necessary to facilitate this.
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Sun, 23 Jul 2017 07:35
Councils across Wales no longer hold prayers as part of their official business after the National Secular Society won a court battle over the practice.
Fri, 25 Nov 2016 11:03
A Cheadle town councillor has rejected objections to the council holding prayers in its meetings, saying it was blasphemous to deny that the UK was a "Christian country".
Fri, 20 May 2016 07:46
A town council in Shropshire has voted to drop prayers from its meetings over concerns that the imposition of prayer was putting people off from attending.
Wed, 10 Feb 2016 12:20
A local councillor has called on Ross-on-Wye town council to move away from religious events and to embrace inclusive, secular ceremonies – warning that current arrangements alienate non-Christians.
Thu, 29 Oct 2015 12:45
A Local councillor has resigned after his motion to remove prayers from East Herts District Council meetings was heavily defeated.