NSS Challenge to Council prayers reaches the High Court

The National Secular Society’s challenge to prayers in local council meetings is due to be heard in the High Court on Friday 2 December.

The National Secular Society regards acts of worship during council meetings as a key secular issue concerning the separation of religion from politics.

The NSS is taking Bideford Town Council in Devon to court after receiving a complaint from one of its councillors, Clive Bone, that he was disadvantaged and embarrassed as a non-believer by the saying of prayers as part of council business. He has either to sit through them or leave the room without leave of the Mayor. The Council even rejected a suggested compromise period of silence.

The Society’s lawyers advised that:

  • those of no religion were being indirectly discriminated against without justification (and this unlawfully)
  • the Council’s actions breach Articles 9 and/or 14 of The European Convention on Human Rights (right to freedom of conscience and protection from discrimination)
  • the Council has no power to conduct prayers

The NSS contends that the saying of prayers in what should be a secular environment concerned with civic business is inappropriate and could put off people of other religions and none from taking part in an important democratic activity.

It has been claimed that the NSS has “picked on” a council with insufficient resources to defend itself. In fact, the NSS responded to an unsolicited complaint from a councillor on Bideford Town Council and the Council has an indemnity from costs; the Council’s defence is being backed by the well-resourced Christian Institute.

The Council argues that were our challenge to succeed it would result in the denial of religious freedom to those who want to engage in prayer, but we contend their insistence on prayers in such an inappropriate setting discriminates against non-believers and those of other faiths.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society, said: “We are not seeking to deny anybody the right to pray, but we are challenging the appropriateness of prayers being conducted during council meetings. The council chamber and council proceedings should be equally welcoming to everyone living in the local community, and should therefore be a religiously neutral and secular place. Prayers should not be foisted on others serving the community as councillors. Those who feel it is necessary to ask for divine guidance before engaging in council business should do so privately outside the meeting or silently in the council chamber.”

Mr Wood said that those who didn’t want to engage in prayers — which includes some religious people who also believe prayers are inappropriate in such settings — have either to walk out of the council chamber, without invitation from the mayor, or sit through the prayers feeling awkward and embarrassed – and, given the Council’s refusal to respond appropriately, resentful. That a group of Christian councillors continue to vote to impose the practice, does not — as they contend — make it lawful; the law is not made in Bideford.

“Part of the Council’s defence is that the prayers aid cohesion, despite this dispute over several years in which this councillor and others have sought to have prayers removed from the council meeting agenda.

“Nor is Bideford the only place where prayers have impeded cohesion rather than contributing to it. A Christian councillor has been reported walking out of Portsmouth council meeting when a Muslim prayer was read out, and we know of disquiet in other councils over prayers. This kind of conflict is unnecessary but will be increasingly common as our society diversifies even further, yet Bideford persists in claiming prayers promote cohesion.”

A survey of local authorities carried out by the NSS showed that something like half of councils in England include prayers as part of their proceedings. So, if this case is successful, the ruling will be far-reaching as it will need to be heeded by local authorities throughout England and Wales.

Read our Council Prayers Campaign Briefing