Many local councils include prayers as part of the formal meetings. We argue that it is wholly inappropriate for a group of publicly-elected members to appear corporately to subscribe to any religious beliefs, far less one in particular.
Furthermore, for local democracy to be representative we think it is imperative that the Council reflects the diversity of the community it serves and moves away from practices that deter full involvement from all sections of that community. We are aware of potential candidates who will not put their names forward for election because participation in prayers is against their personal values. This deprives local democracy of potential new members and diversity. For Councillors who do still come forward to represent their communities, Prayers can create a feeling of exclusion. A senior local cleric has also made it known that he believes that prayers are not appropriate in Council meetings.
Everyone should be free to practise their faith, just as they should be free not to have one. Our campaign does not deny anybody the right to pray, but we do question the appropriateness of a council meeting as a place for prayers. We regard acts of worship in council meetings as a key secular issue concerning the separation of religion from politics.
Successful Council prayers legal challenge
On 10 February 2012 we won a landmark legal challenge to prayers during council meetings.
The High Court ruled 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".
Simply put, it was ruled that holding prayers is not within the Council's legal powers as they do not facilitate the discharge of any of the Council's functions, nor are they conducive or incidental to them.
Our legal challenge which took the form of a Judicial Review was presided over by the judge in charge of the Administrative Court, Mr Justice Ouseley on 2 December 2011
In Court we contended that the Council's practice is unlawful on three main grounds:
(1) it is unjustified (and thus unlawful) indirect discrimination against persons of no religion
(2) it is incompatible with Articles 9 and 14 ECHR (freedom of religion/conscience and non-discrimination)
(3) it is ultra vires (outside the powers of) the Council.
It was not necessary for us to win on all three points for the judgment to go in our favour. As Justice Ouseley found the practice unlawful under the Local Government Act, the arguments under the Equality Act and the Human Rights Act necessarily fell by the wayside.
The ruling will apply to the formal meetings of all councils in England and Wales, the majority of which conduct prayers as part of their meetings.
What you can do
If your council is continuing to conduct prayers during formal meetings, we would be interested in learning about it.
The Order of the court following the judgement states:
- A Local Authority has no power under s.111 of the Local Government Act 1792 or otherwise to hold prayers as part of a formal Local Authority meeting or to summon Councillors to such a meeting at which prayers are on the agenda.
- The saying of prayers in a Local Authority chamber before a formal meeting of such a body is lawful provided councillors are not formally summoned to attend.
if you think your local council is breaking the law, please let us know by sending full details by email to email@example.com, putting the name of the authority at the start of the subject line. If you do not have email, please write to the