As a judge outlaws prayers at council meetings, Comunities Secretary Eric Pickles tells Channel 4 News he is “standing up for part of British traditional Christian culture”.
The court judgement will apply to the formal meetings of all councils in England and Wales following a legal challenge brought by the National Secular Society against Bideford Town Council in Devon.
In an interview with Channel 4 News, Mr Pickles criticised the court’s decision and said Britain was a “Christian country”.
He added: “An act of Christian worship has been part of our cultural heritage and this is a fundamental attack on that. It does seem to me that it’s been part of our culture to do so, and I think there’s nothing wrong in standing up for part of British, traditional Christian culture.”
I think there’s nothing wrong in standing up for part of British, traditional Christian culture. Eric Pickles, Communities Secretary
The National Secular Society went to court after it was contacted by Clive Bone, who was then a Bideford councillor, but later resigned from the council over the prayer issue.
Lawyers for the society argued that council members who were not religious were being “indirectly discriminated against” in breach of human rights laws. But the case was in the end won on an interpretation of the Local Government Act, not human rights law.
The judge, Mr Justice Ouseley, gave Bideford council permission to appeal against his ruling, acknowledging the case raises issues of general public importance.
He said: “There is no specific power to say prayers or to have any period of quiet reflection as part of the business of the council. The council has on two occasions by a majority voted to retain public prayers at its full meetings. But that does not give it power to do what it has no power to do.”
Bideford council made attendance at prayers optional, but the judge said this was not a good enough solution because the meeting then became “a partial gathering of those councillors who share a particular religious outlook or are indifferent to it or, as in the case of Mr Bone, too embarrassed to leave in public.”
Speaking to Channel 4 News, Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society said: “We have been overwhelmed with people phoning and saying they find the practice infuriating. One Muslim councillor in a Conservative Surrey town, made a point of coming in to the council meeting after the prayers had finished and he said he could see looks of contempt from the public gallery.”
He said that the society had offered a compromise solution of a quiet period of reflection, or of holding prayers before the meeting, but these were rejected by the council.
In a statement, the council said it was “surprised and disappointed that the court has decided that the saying of prayers as part of the formal business meeting of local councils is unlawful”.
It added: “We are very pleased that the court has decided in favour of Bideford that we had not discriminated against Mr Bone, nor infringed his human rights. We will be speaking to our legal team to consider our options, including whether to appeal.”
If they did away with daily prayers in the House of Commons … there would be a revolution. Harry Greenway, former Tory MP
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles described today’s ruling as: “surprising and disappointing”. He said: “While welcoming and respecting fellow British citizens who belong to other faiths, we are a Christian country. Public authorities – be it parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish.”
But Mr Porteous Wood disagreed. He said: “Our country is changing out of all recognition. The proportion of non-religious people and of other faiths are far higher than they were, but the established church wants to hold on to the privileges that they have so often imposed on others.”
He said that the society would like to challenge the saying of prayers in parliament as well. “I have spoken to peers and members of the House of Commons who say they can’t get into the house for the start of questions without going to prayers first. That would be a much more difficult fight because parliament always exempts itself from regulations such as equality and health and safety.”
Harry Greenway, a former Tory MP and ex-chairman of the National Prayer Breakfast, said: “I trust this ruling will be quickly reversed. If people do not want to attend prayers of this nature, they can stay away instead of meddling and busybodying with other people’s beliefs. If they did away with daily prayers in the House of Commons … there would be a revolution.”