Council Prayers Ruling Will Be Overturned, Christians Pledge
Christians and community figures have vowed that a High Court decision to outlaw the centuries-old tradition of formal prayers being said at the start of local council meetings is not be the end of the matter.
Mr Justice Ouseley, sitting in London, ruled local councils lacked power under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 to hold prayers "as part of a formal local authority meeting".
However it was lawful for prayers to be said "in a local authority chamber before a formal meeting", provided councillors were not "formally summoned to attend".
John Breeds, mayor of Rye in East Sussex, said he expects councillors at Rye Town Council will now just say prayers ahead of their meetings.
He said: "We will try to find a way around it. It doesn't actually have to be part of the meeting. Presumably if we can't say prayers at the beginning of the meeting proper, then we will just have to say them beforehand.
"It's been a tradition for hundreds of years, it's part of the whole sense of ceremony, with the robes and mace and chains, so I think it's a real shame."
The mayor of Folkestone in Kent, Sue Wallace, said she was "astounded" by the decision.
She said: "I think it should be down to the individual to decide. Soon we won't be able to decide anything.
"I'm sure there are lots of other councils all over the country that will feel the same way as I do."
The High Court ruling came about after the National Secular Society and an atheist ex-councillor argued that Bideford town council in Devon was acting unlawfully by putting prayer on meeting agendas.
It is understood the ritual dates back in Bideford to the days of Queen Elizabeth I, and the council has recently voted twice to retain it.
Communities Secretary Eric Pickles described the decision as "illiberal and intolerant".
He said: "It's been part of our rights, our ancestors have fought long and hard for the ability to have free religious assembly.
"This still remains a Christian country. We have an established Church of which the Queen's the head, these kind of ceremonies have been taking place for a long time and I think it's only right they should be respected.
"I think there's nothing wrong in standing up for part of British traditional Christian culture, as indeed I think it's absolutely right that we should stand up to defend British Muslims.
"We've stood for religious tolerance in this country, and it does seem to me that this judgment is a deeply illiberal and intolerant judgment."
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."
Sir Merrick Cockell, chairman of the Local Government Association, said it was likely the ruling would be overridden.
But the judgment affecting councils all over England and Wales was welcomed by the National Secular Society as "an important victory for everyone who wants a secular society that neither advantages nor disadvantages people because of their religion or lack of it".
Keith Porteous Wood, the society's executive director, said: "There is no longer a respectable argument that Britain is a solely Christian nation, or even a religious one."
He said: "An increasing proportion of people are not practising any religion, and minority faiths are growing in number and influence."
Prayers had been the cause of tension in a number of multi-faith local councils.
The legal challenge was launched in July 2010 after the National Secular Society was contacted by Clive Bone - a non-believer who was then a Bideford councillor.
Mr Bone later left the council because of its "refusal to adjust" its prayer policy, which caused him embarrassment.
In court, the secularists' argument included assertions that prayers breached equality laws and articles nine and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect an individual's right to freedom of conscience and not to face discrimination.
But the judge rejected the human rights and equality challenges. He ruled formal prayers were only unlawful because the council lacked the statutory power to put them on the agenda.