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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

More councils re-evaluate prayers at meetings

The NSS’s council prayer challenge has caused other councils to reconsider their policies.

Vale of White Horse District Council — the only district authority in Oxfordshire to hold a short service at the start of its full council meetings — was told by Cllr Melinda Tilley that the service should be scrapped. “I just object to it. It is the wrong time, the wrong place, the wrong everything,” she said.

Both she and Jerry Patterson, Liberal Democrat member for Kennington and South Hinksey, leave the chamber in Abingdon when prayers are said. Ms Tilley said: “They have all these prayers and everyone is bowing down, feeling righteous, and then everybody kicks six bells out of each other. It is a bit hypocritical, they should hold it afterwards.”

But the council voted to keep praying back in May. Former Oxford West and Abingdon MP Dr Evan Harris said: “It causes problems for those councillors who are not religious or of a different religion when they have to appear to take part or leave.”

But Roger Cox, deputy leader of the Vale of White Horse District Council, said: “I am a traditionalist and I see no reason why not, provided it does not offend anybody.”

Meanwhile in Gloucestershire County Council — which scrapped prayers last week — Cllr Simon Wheeler said it was about being fair to all religions. Council chairman Brian Thornton announced the change on Wednesday, saying the practice excluded some members, who might feel embarrassed. But Mr Wheeler, an agnostic, said he and two other colleagues had been behind the move and that it had been about not offending non-Christian religions. He said: “It was simply a Christian prayer but there are many other religions.”

However, in neighbouring Cheltenham, the mayor, Barbara Driver, has declared that prayers will continue – despite the fact that several councillors wait outside the chamber until the chaplain has finished the Christian ritual.

Mr Driver said: “I have thought about it, but those who do not like a prayer can either not come into the chamber until it is over, or indeed not pray. I have had the chaplain talk more about what we are there for rather than just a prayer, but everyone should have a choice. Who am I to say to one side or the other? This is what we will do in Cheltenham. We have a choice, that is was (sic) democracy is all about.”

Published Fri, 09 Dec 2011