Dismay at council prayers ruling
Some Christians and politicians reacted with dismay as the High Court outlawed the centuries-old tradition of formal prayers being said at the start of local council meetings up and down the country.
The National Secular Society and an atheist ex-councillor won a test case ruling 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 Elizabeth I, and the council has recently voted twice to retain it.
But Mr Justice Ouseley, sitting in London, ruled local councils lacked the 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".
He added: "I do not think that the 1972 Act dealing with the organisation, management and decision-making of local councils should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of councillors, however sincere or large its number, to exclude or, even to a modest extent, impose burdens on or mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression. They are all equally-elected councillors."
Acknowledging the widespread importance of a decision that surprised many, the judge gave the council permission to appeal. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles described it as "surprising and disappointing" - and queried whether the judge had got the law right.
Mr Pickles said: "Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. The Localism Act now gives councils a general power of competence - which allows them to undertake any general action that an individual could do unless it is specifically prohibited by law. Logically, this includes prayers before meetings."
Sir Merrick Cockell, chairman of the Local Government Association, said: "It is the LGA's view that this ruling will be overridden by the 'general power of competence' as soon as the legislation comes into force and that it remains the decision of local authorities if they wish to hold prayers during formal meetings."
The general power of competence is part of the Localism Act and is designed to give local authorities the legal capacity to do anything an individual can do that is not specifically prohibited by law.
Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, said: "Prayers have been a part of council meetings for centuries, and many people, either for religious reasons or cultural reasons, see them as a positive part of our national life. It's a shame the courts have taken sides with those whose goal is to undermine our Christian heritage."
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".