A bill affirming the right of local councils in England and Wales to hold prayers at meetings has received the support of the both the government and the main opposition Labour Party.
The Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill, which explicitly states the local government authorities have the right to hold prayers and observe religious festivals, was introduced after the High Court ruled the town council in Bideford, south west England, acted unlawfully in holding prayers at meetings.
Atheist councillor Clive Bone complained that prayers at council meetings violated his right to freedom of conscience under the European Convention on Human Rights, leading to the National Secular Society (NSS) taking his case to the High Court.
Although the NSS did not win the case on human rights grounds, the court did rule that the prayers were not lawful under the Local Government Act 1972, with judge Mr Justice Ouseley saying: “A local authority has no power under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, 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.”
Speaking as the bill made its way through its latest stage in the legislative process, local government minister Penny Mordaunt said that it “will not compel anyone to pray or any local authority to include prayers in their official business, nor does it define what constitutes prayer.” The Christian Institute reports that she also criticised people “with an axe to grind” who may wish to challenge prayers at council meetings.
Labour’s shadow local government minister, Lyn Brown, also supported the bill, saying it ” does not seem to conflict with the most liberal of expectations,” adding that she supported the right of “local authorities of all types to include prayers if they wish to. It is not prescriptive, but enabling.”
Jake Berry, the Conservative MP for Rossendale and Darwen, also praised the bill. “As we approach Christmas, the celebration of the birth of who I believe to be the Prince of Peace, all elected officials might like to reflect that there may be more power in prayer than in any stroke of a Minister’s pen or ruling from the Chair,” he said.