Council prayers ruled illegal

The High Court has ruled that Bideford Town Council acted unlawfully by including prayers at the start of meetings. A pleasing result, although not particularly surprising, seeing that it effectively discriminated against councillors who held non-Christian beliefs. And it appears that it’s unlikely to have any serious impact, seeing that it’s still possible to hold prayers just before a meeting, and the new Localism Act is intended to give councils the powers they would need to authorise these prayers. But there are two interesting elements to this story – one is the reasoning given for the ruling, and one is the reaction to it.

The reasoning first – Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that the council has no authority under the relevant legislation (specifically, the 1972 Local Government Act, or LGA) to conduct a council meeting of which prayers would be part. That’s quite a narrow ruling, and I suspect deliberately so – the National Secular Society (NSS) had argued that the prayers constituted a breach of human rights legislation relating to freedom of religion, but the court appears to have chosen not to rule on that matter (although it expressed an opinion that there were no human rights implications), as it could get away with answering a narrower question.

This is significant, as the courts are generally careful to consider what precedent they might set, and to avoid rulings which are excessively wide-ranging if there’s any hint of uncertainty. In this case, the full judgment studiously avoids some tricky questions, while concentrating very heavily on the LGA 1972, in order to reach a prompt ruling on this case without straying unnecessarily into other issues. That act is sufficient to reach a conclusion, so other matters, while discussed, are effectively left hanging.

What this means is that both sides are missing the point somewhat in their reactions. The NSS are obviously happy to have won, but their enthusiasm should be tempered by the knowledge that they have done so on a relatively narrow point of law, and their attempt to achieve a wider ruling on the human rights aspects of the case has been unsuccessful, with the judge expressing an opinion against them. However, it’s the council and their supporters who seem to be most in need of an injection of perspective. Between them, they’re trying to claim a partial or moral victory and simultaneously spread fear that this will have far-reaching implications, and managing to be wrong on both counts.

First, the partial victory. Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, says:

We are pleased that the court has said the saying of prayers at meetings does not breach human rights laws

This is a somewhat casual rewording of the ruling. In fact, in paragraph 80, the ruling states:

If it were lawful, the manner in which the practice is carried out in the circumstances of Bideford does not infringe either Mr Bone’s human rights nor does it unlawfully discriminate indirectly against him on the grounds of his lack of religious belief.

(My italics)

Mr Justice Ouseley most certainly is not saying that prayers at meetings are OK, just that in his opinion, in these specific circumstances, it doesn’t have anything to do with human rights. I have no doubt that there are other examples of prayers in meetings which he would view differently. This a subtle, but very important difference. Mr Calvert also says:

But it is bizarre that [the prayers] should be declared unlawful because of the 1972 Local Government Act

It is not at all bizarre. In fact, the most crucial element in the case appears to have been that attendance of meetings is expected of councillors and that there are penalties for regular non-attendance, as detailed in the LGA 1972. That single requirement comes up several times in the judgment, and was clearly the strongest point against the council in the court’s view. And that requirement, combined with the fact that the council only has power to act in such a way as to facilitate the discharge of its statutory functions, is surely the obvious starting point for any decision. In fact, the council’s own argument that anyone who wished to leave during the prayers could do so constituted strong evidence that the prayers were not essential for the council’s functions. The Christian Institute might wish to imply that this is defeat on a technicality, but they would be wrong.

Now onto the scaremongering. In the circumstances, I’d expect a certain amount of this, and it’s worth covering this because the same arguments always get aired in cases like this, but the rentaquotes have really done us proud this time. Starting with Mr Calvert again:

The logic of the ruling is that councils would also be going beyond the law if they took a vote and decided to start each formal council meeting with the national anthem

It depends whether anyone objects, and whether it’s considered reasonable for the council to do such a thing as part of its duties, something which is a lot more likely than finding a particular religion to be inextricably linked to the operation of a town council. In any case, it would explicitly be acceptable to commence with the national anthem if the council wished, provided that it did not constitute a formal element of the council meeting.

Tony Inch, a Bideford town councillor, said:

We seem to be going from one crisis to another. It has implications for councils up and down the country. Where is it going to end? It’s eroding the whole basis of Christian life in this country

Now, I wasn’t aware that the “whole basis” of Christian life in this country was a legal right to force people to join in praying to a deity they don’t believe in, or else absent themselves from part of the government of the country. But there you go, you learn something new every day. As discussed previously, the “implications” for councils are limited to the shockingly draconian ruling that if they want to pray, they can, but should do so outside the official council meeting. Note the long-standing persecution and slippery slope being implied, but not substantiated, by the phrase “where is it going to end?”

The bishop of Exeter has also weighed in, echoing the unsupported claims that the national anthem will be banned, and adding this opinion:

The wider issue [of a secular movement] has got to be resisted. It strikes right at the heart of our understanding of ourself as a society. No one is compelled to participate in these activities. There is complete freedom. That freedom has to be respected.

Again, if “our understanding” of our society is that “we” force people to conform with “our” beliefs, it’s news to me. But as the bishop is a senior member of an established church which is allowed a significant presence in our upper chamber, maybe he has a point. And apparently, it is perfectly acceptable to expect people who have no wish to pray to either put up with it or leave the meeting, but an outrageous infringement of personal freedom to ask if those prayers could not be said just before the meeting, rather than during it.

Of course, what the good bishop may or may not realise is that this point about no one being compelled to participate is just the sort of argument that could have been used against Christian campaigns in favour of registrars or adoptive parents acting in a discriminatory manner towards gay people – if you object, you can go and do a different job. And in this case, the judge explicitly draws a parallel with the registrar case in paragraphs 58 and 75, before going on to say that the similarity only stretches so far, as in this case, the act which is objected to is illegal, and the councillor was there as a representative of his constituency, not merely doing a job. I suspect this recognition of the relevance of compulsion will be forgotten by the next time a Christian wants special dispensation not to have to deal with people they find icky in the course of their work, though.

And of course, there will be lots of handwringing and claims that prayers are being banned at all times and in all places. However, paragraph 13 of the judgment explicitly says that there is nothing to stop anyone who wishes to do so praying before the meeting. Anyone who makes any criticism of the ruling without acknowledging this very relevant point can safely be ignored. Unfortunately, that’s likely to cover just about every negative comment, as once it’s taken into account, there’s little reason to object.

But that’s unlikely to stop the squealing.

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

3 responses to “Council prayers ruled illegal”

  1. unklee says :

    I wonder hoe Bideford, of all places, was the test case for this stuff? For what it’s worth, I agree with you. Making people hypocrites or uncomfortable doesn’t seem to me to be very christian.

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  1. A secular success? « Ben Blogs - February 11, 2012

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