17/02/2012 07:59 GMT

Prayers Ban: Bideford Town Council To Appeal Against 'Intolerant' Ruling

A town council is to appeal against a High Court ruling that banned Christian prayers as part of council business at the start of meetings.

Bideford Town Council in north Devon voted 11 to five on 16 February in favour of trying to overturn last week's ruling that local authorities lacked power under the Local Government Act 1972 to hold prayers "as part of a formal local authority meeting", BBC Devon reported.

The decision to ban prayers, made by Mr Justice Ouseley, sitting in London last Friday, was criticised by senior religious figures, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, and politicians - with Communities Secretary Eric Pickles describing it as "illiberal and intolerant".

The High Court ruling came about after the National Secular Society and an atheist ex-councillor, Clive Bone, argued that Bideford town council was acting unlawfully by putting prayer on meeting agendas.

The National Secular Society said this morning it was not surprised at the decision to appeal and would take a "very active role" in the legal process.

Executive director Keith Porteous Wood said: "We expected the appeal. Our lawyers tell us we have a strong case and we will pursue it vigorously.

"We have been overwhelmed by the amount of support we have had, we have had lots of councillors from across the country coming to us and saying they share our view and are delighted with the result."

The Christian Institute said it would continue to support the council in its action.

A spokesman said: "There has been an enormous outpouring of concern at all levels of society over what the Bideford ruling could mean for our Christian heritage. It seems almost everybody in the country wanted Bideford to appeal, so people will be pleased that the council has voted to do so.

"Of course, since the ruling, the Government has promised to fast-forward new legal changes. Lawyers say these changes give councils power to include prayers in their meetings, so the ruling itself may be overtaken by events.

"However, Bideford has voted to appeal in order to protect their position, which is clearly the right thing to do. Their lawyers will be advising them on what steps to take next and the Christian Institute is looking forward to continuing to co-operate with them to help protect the place of prayers in British public life."

It is understood the ritual in Bideford dates back to the days of Queen Elizabeth I, and the council has recently voted twice to retain it.

But Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that local councils lacked power under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 to hold prayers "as part of a formal local authority meeting".

But it is lawful for prayers to be said "in a local authority chamber before a formal meeting", provided councillors were not "formally summoned to attend".

Councillor Trevor Johns, the mayor of Bideford, said the council was abiding by the High Court pending the appeal, but it was challenging a decision he described as "not cricket".

"This is a very peculiar situation. It has created a lot of interest and people do feel that it has undermined our democracy," he said.

"We are elected by the people of Bideford to represent them and while we are doing this business, someone comes along and says we can't. We are voted in and for someone to come in and sweep it away, it's not cricket."