The decision by the High Court to ban prayers at a local council meeting has been slammed by politicians and faith groups, with communities secretary Eric Pickles the first to speak out in defence of the UK’s “Christian heritage”.
The test case, brought by the National Secular Society, could lead to a change of practice for public meetings across the country.
"While welcoming and respecting fellow British citizens who belong to other faiths, we are a Christian country, with an established church governed by the Queen,” said Pickles.
"Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. Public authorities – be it parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish. The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty.
"The Localism Act now gives councils a general power of competence – which allows them to undertake any general action that an individual could do unless it is specifically prohibited by law. Logically, this includes prayers before meetings."
On Friday Mr Justice Ouseley, ruled: "The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a council is not lawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue."
The legal challenge was launched in July 2010 after the society was contacted by Clive Bone - a non-believer who was then a Bideford councillor.
Bideford town clerk Heather Blackburn expressed "surprise and disappointment" with the ruling banning formal prayers.
But she noted that the court "has confirmed that prayers may be said in the council chamber immediately preceding formal business".
Ms Blackburn said: "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 and that the practices adopted by the council did not infringe equality legislation.
"We will be speaking to our legal team to consider our options, including whether to appeal."
Unless overturned on appeal, the council said its last formal prayers at a meeting last night. The brief ritual took the form of "two minutes of reflective silence" conducted by a Quaker.
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 - and I would not be surprised if an attempt is made to do that - there would be a revolution.
"Non-believers are not harassed in this way by believers. Why cannot the non-believers show the same kind of tolerance? I find this ruling puzzling in the extreme."
Councillor Pete Reeve, UKIP's local government spokesman, said: "This result makes a mockery of the Government's localism agenda.
"Local councils should be allowed to start their meetings in whatever way they choose.
"Sadly in this day and age it seems the minority that shouts the loudest gets their way at the expense of the majority."
Speaking to the Huffington Post UK, Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association welcomed the decision, calling the practice of Christian prayers in local councils and in other public bodies "archaic, divisive and inappropriate".
"Religious councillors, like any others, may wish to reflect on their own beliefs as they confront the duties of public life but enforcing sectional religious practices into what should be a neutral civic space is wrong," he said.
"Participation in the democratic process is not limited to those of a particular belief, and official prayer sessions of any variety before council meetings are exclusive and all should be abolished."
However, Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, a national charity that defends religious liberty and underwrote Bideford Council’s legal costs, described the ruling as "bizarre".
He said: "We are pleased that the court has said the saying of prayers at meetings does not breach human rights laws - but it is bizarre that they should be declared unlawful because of the 1972 Local Government Act."
“It is extraordinary to rule that councils have no lawful authority to choose, if they so wish, to start their formal meetings with prayers. That is simply wrong. 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.
“There is no way that Parliament, when it passed the Local Government Act 40 years ago, intended it to be used to outlaw prayers. This case was brought by a campaign group that wants to drive Christianity out of public life, and the High Court has today given them great encouragement to take matters further.
“It is high time Parliament put a stop to this assault upon our national heritage. What’s next? Will prayers at the cenotaph end up in court? What about local councils that wish to formally mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee as part of their official meeting? Is that now unlawful too?”
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