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) Bill
The Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill seeks to make provision for the inclusion of prayers or "other religious observance" or "observance connected with a religious or philosophical belief" at local authority meetings.
The Private Member's Bill seeks 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."
The 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) Bill is sponsored by Conservative MP Jake Berry, a supporter of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, but was but prepared by the Department for Communities and Local Government, led by the evangelical Eric Pickles who insists Britain is a "Christian country".
The Bill'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 Bill would do, is incompatible with a genuine commitment to religious freedom. If successful, the Bill would enable a majority of councillors to impose their beliefs and acts of worship on other councillors, and so will, 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 current legal position simply prevents 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.
If successful, we fear this legislation could open the door to wholly unnecessary conflict and sectarian squabbles within local authorities.
This legislation has not been properly debated or received 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 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 are a liberty to do so. No change in the law is necessary to facilitate this.
The Bill will be debated at Report stage in the House of Commons on Friday 16 January.
Please contact your MP and ask them to oppose this Bill
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Fri, 16 Jan 2015 17:09
A private members' bill to allow local authorities to summon councillors to prayer has successfully completed its passage through the House of Commons and will now go to the Lords for further scrutiny.
Thu, 15 Jan 2015 15:34
Conservative MP Philip Davies has introduced an amendment to the Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill that would make prayers compulsory at the start of local authority meetings.
Fri, 09 Jan 2015 11:49
The Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill to allow councillors to be summoned to pray has passed a further stage on its race to becoming law.
Thu, 18 Dec 2014 11:46
The NSS has accused the Government of undermining religious freedom by supporting a bill to include "prayers or other religious observance" in the business of local authority meetings.
Tue, 06 May 2014 12:55
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that opening public meetings with prayer does not automatically violate the Constitution's ban on government endorsement of religion.