Backing for parish council prayers
Parish councils in England have been handed a new power to continue to hold prayers as part of their formal business, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has announced.
Mr Pickles insisted the new power sent a "strong signal that this Government will protect the role of faith in public life against aggressive secularism".
However, campaigners from the National Secular Society accused the Secretary of State of behaving "like some sort of dictator" and warned the move could open up councils to future court action.
The High Court ruled in February against Bideford Town Council, stating it was illegal for councils to continue with the practice of holding prayers at the start of meetings. The judgment was based on an interpretation of Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972.
Following the ruling, Mr Pickles fast-tracked the introduction of the new general power of competence for (principal) local authorities in England, to enable councils to continue to include prayers as part of the formal business at council meetings if desired. The power has also been extended to town and parish councils that meet the criteria.
Mr Pickles said: "Parliament has been clear that councils should have greater freedom from central interference. These new powers let councils innovate and also hands them back the freedom to pray.
"Bideford Town Council will be able to hold prayers once more at the start of council business. With Easter approaching, this sends a strong signal that this Government will protect the role of faith in public life against aggressive secularism."
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society said the Coalition Government's Localism Act 2011 had not been tested in any court, arguing Mr Pickles could not "simply walk in and give it any meaning that suits his purpose".
He said: "Mr Pickles has unilaterally declared that the Localism Act restores the right of councils to pray during formal business. But there is nothing in the Act that says this and, according to our advice, it gives no such power.
"He is behaving like some sort of dictator, declaring a legitimate court judgment to be overturned simply because it doesn't suit his personal, religious, philosophy. In doing so, he puts councils who take him at his word at risk of being in contempt of court."