Council meetings are not generally known for their piety. Far from it, in fact. When I think of council meetings (which I rarely do) I picture officious grey men deliberating over rubbish collections and recycling schedules. I do not think of penitent parishioners with their heads bowed in holy contemplation. Nevertheless, it now seems that prayers (yes, actual prayers) could soon be a part of official council business.
When I first read about the Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill, it struck me as somehow sinister and hilarious at the same time. Jake Berry, little known MP and spirited devil-dodger, has decided that best way to open council meetings is with a nod to The Almighty. Berry is the man responsible for this curious Private Members' Bill. Thanks to him, it now seems perilously likely that the government will endorse religious privilege. On 16 January, this Bill passed through the commons without any kind of meaningful scrutiny. We are at DEFCON 2.
Incredible as it sounds, modern state-sanctioned prayer is nothing new. Before 2012 it was not unusual for councillors to pray before getting down to business. Back then it was entirely possible to drop in on a Local Authority gathering and find a staid bureaucrat leading his fellows in an act of collective worship. I wonder what form this took. Did they link hands in a shamanistic ritual? Doubtful. Did they dance a joyous dance before the wicker man? Unlikely. More often than not thanks and praise were given to the Abrahamic gods: Yahweh and Allah. And this was the problem. As usual, the popular gods were getting all the adulation, leaving the followers of lesser deities out in the cold - along with the atheists. The process was inherently divisive.
It was the National Secular Society (NSS) who helped put an end to this devotional activity. They applied to the High Court (National Secular Society and Mr Clive Bone -v- Bideford Town Council) who in turn ruled the bizarre practice unlawful. And rightly so. The NSS pointed out the rather obvious fact that prayers at a council meeting could make some people feel uncomfortable. Any right-thinking corporate worker can relate to this. If I were at a meeting in our City office and someone wanted to kick things off with a prayer, the reactions around the room would range from bemusement to outrage (probably at the waste of time, rather than on theological grounds). And yet somehow certain Local Authorities saw nothing wrong with incorporating such acts of heavenly adulation into their official business.
At this point, I should makes one thing clear: I do not object to people praying. It is the insertion of religion into public life that I object to. Why? Because religion is a private matter, and should remain so. If councillors want to gather in the car park before meetings and ask the sun god Ra to incinerate their opponents, that is up to them. If they want to congregate at the water cooler to thank Poseidon for his gift, they should be allowed to do so. That is their business. And as long as they do it in their time, I could not care less.
Clearly, not everyone feels this way. There are politicians out there who would like nothing more than to meld church and state. Fiona Bruce is one such MP. As an active supporter of the Bill she positively relishes the thought of state sanctioned prayer. In Bruce's mind the secularisation of council meetings is an affront to society. She objects to the High Court's 2012 ruling, comparing its rather modest requirement for councillors to leave religion at home to the Nazi antisemitic persecution of the 1930s.
Any public figure willing to invoke the Nazis means business. So, let's imagine Berry and Bruce get their way and the Bill becomes law. Religious councillors of every stripe would get to flaunt their theology. Sounds reasonable enough, right? Then let's imagine I am a Scientologist councillor and I wanted to use the opportunity to urge my comrades to audit themselves - lest the thetans run amok. Would I be allowed to do so? Yes. Would my colleagues find the scene uncomfortable? Probably. Would I go on to become an amusing dinner-party anecdote? Absolutely. An atheist councillor might have similar thoughts while listening to a paean to some Bronze Age desert god.
Maybe I'm being unfair suggesting that religious demagogues are somehow trying to shove us down the road to theocracy. It is likely that any council prayer-sessions will be closer to Radio 4's insipid 'Thought for the Day' than a fiery End Times mauling. Nonetheless, do we really want religion mixed in with our politics? Seriously. With sectarian violence incinerating great tracts of humanity, do we really think shoehorning religion into the business of government is a good idea? Jake Berry and his cohorts seem to think so - but what do we think? Berry and his like couldn't possibly know, because they have never asked us. And that is the problem.
Read more about the Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill on the National Secular Society website.