THE BLOG
10/02/2012 09:53 GMT | Updated 11/04/2012 06:12 BST

Courts Confuse Our Thinking on What 'Secular' Means

The NSS's misguided campaign to rid our public life of any hint that religious people might be a part of it simply continues the impression that religious people and non-religious people are not able to function together, respecting each other's differences, without all out war.

It's not been a good week for clear thinking on the role of religion in public life. In the US, where the First Amendment of the constitution demands a complete separation of church and state, a Judge has ruled that churches must stop meeting in school buildings because "a worship service is an act of organised religion that consecrates the place in which it is performed, making it a church."

This is not just theologically illiterate (no mainstream Christian denomination believes this) but highly superstitious about the fabric of buildings and their mutability.

Here in the UK, the National Secular Society's (NSS) campaign to end a council in Devon conducting prayers before their meetings has been successful. A majority in the council had voted to continue the practice, and believes that they have a democratic right to continue. Because of this ruling, no council in England or Wales will be able to hold prayers as part of its formal business.

Both these cases reveal more than a little confusion. In the US, the context is an overwrought, ongoing debate about prayer in schools and a caution verging on paranoia about mixing religion and the state (though not, of course, religion and politics). The idea, mooted in an op-ed in the New York Times, that the church handing out leaflets about their services, or even praying for the school they are meeting in is somehow a violation of this is patently absurd.

Here in the UK we see a Judge making a downright odd ruling on a case that shouldn't have come to court. Rather than basing his ruling on the NSS's claims that prayers are discriminatory or raise equality or human rights concerns, he ruled in favour of banning the practice because he found that prayers do not fall within the ambit of Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972. This provides local authorities with a generic power "to do any thing (whether or not involving the expenditure, borrowing or lending of money or the acquisition or disposal of any property or rights) which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions."

The basis on which he comes to this conclusion is not clear. What was propelling him to interpret these non-specific clauses in such a way? Having rejected claims of discrimination, he then sneaks them back in:

"I do not think the 1972 Act [...] should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of councillors, however sincere or large in number, to exclude, or even to a modest extent, to impose burdens on or even to mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression of them. They are all equally elected councillors".

I have some sympathy with the argument that those who do not believe should be not be forced to take part in a ritual that excludes them. However, court cases of this kind simply distort these discussions. These kind of issues can only be resolved sensibly, graciously, and productively amongst the people involved. In the case of Bideford Council, the councillor who raised the original objection has now left, but the campaign has rolled on.

Our current discourse, which frames the debate as about competing 'rights', us and them, religious people vs. secular people, creates an impoverished and divided public space. We have forgotten how to handle our differences like grown-ups. Healthy, generous secularism, what Rowan Williams calls "procedural secularism", means holding open a space where all people and all voices are allowed space to flourish. It does not mean a programmatic and illiberal banishing of some points of view which are seen by others to be invalid- whether those are religious, ideological or other.

If the majority of council members wanted to say prayers, those that didn't should be able to join after they'd finished. This in the end was part of the judges ruling- that prayers could be said as long as councillors were not formally summoned to attend. Was this not something that could have been worked out without the money and resources spent on a protracted case? There was no need for an unhelpful legal precedent to be set.

The NSS's misguided campaign to rid our public life of any hint that religious people might be a part of it simply continues the impression that religious people and non-religious people are not able to function together, respecting each other's differences, without all out war.