Town hall prayers could be illegal

A Town Hall watchdog organisation, the National Association of Local Councils, has advised that saying Christian prayers before council meetings might infringe human rights and equality laws. It has urged a Devon council to drop prayers to “eliminate any risk” of challenge in the courts. If implemented, the move could have widespread implications for every local authority in the country where most meetings still begin with prayers.

In legal advice sent to Bideford Town Council, the NALC said councillors and members of the public could argue that their right to practise any religion could be infringed by the reciting of Christian prayers before meetings. The advice follows Liberal Democrat councillor Clive Bone's bid two months ago to scrap the prayers. The town council disagreed and voted to continue the tradition.

The NALC advises and represents the interests of around 8,500 town and parish councils in England and lobbies the Government on behalf of its members. In an e-mail to the town council's clerk George McLauchlan, NALC solicitor Meera Tharmarajah said: “The council should consider removing the saying of prayers to ensure compliance with (the Race Discrimination Act) and to eliminate any risk of challenge under the Human Rights Act."

The e-mail outlines in detail Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

Ms Tharmarajah adds: "It is just possible for someone — member of the council or member of the public — to argue that Article 9 has been infringed by Bideford Town Council's practice of prayers."

Last night Councillor Bone insisted he was motivated by an issue of equality. He said: "One needs to ensure that no one feels embarrassed or put out or feels that the council belongs to a particular group. Local government is open to everybody. This is simply about bringing things up to date. It is no big deal – far more important is what goes on in the council. It is an equalities issue. It is nothing to do with religion."

A spokesman for the Equality and Human Rights Commission said: “Article 9 of the Act is about allowing people to exercise their religious freedom, not about stopping them expressing their religion.”

14 March 2008