UK council prayer ban is 'attack on all faith'

British government began drawing up new legal guidelines in a bid to override a court ruling outlawing the centuries-old tradition of saying prayers at the start of local council meetings.

LONDON // The British government began drawing up new legal guidelines yesterday in a bid to override a court ruling outlawing the centuries-old tradition of saying prayers at the start of local council meetings.

Politicians and church leaders were dismayed after a councillor from Devon, backed by the National Secular Society (NSS), succeeded in an appeal to the High Court in London. It ruled on Friday that prayers should not be on the formal agendas of council meetings - a tradition that dates back almost 500 years.

There were fears that, in the wake of the ruling, atheists would mount challenges to prayers in parliament and even the singing of the national anthem, God Save the Queen, during this year's celebrations marking the queen's 60 years on the throne.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, said there was "a huge constitutional implication" behind the ruling. "Where will this stop?" he asked. "By a test case about prayer in parliament?"

The ruling not only worried Christians but those of other faiths. Mohammed Shafiq, the chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, an Islamic educational campaign group, described the judgment as an "attack on all faith".

"We are a religious country, a majority Christian country," he said. "As people of faith - whether we take inspiration from Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or whatever - we should take pride in that and be able to say prayers. I think this judgment is a step back. It is an attack against freedom."

Clive Bone, then a councillor in Bideford, Devon, launched his legal challenge in July 2010. Backed by the NSS, he based his case on European human-rights laws. He said he felt discriminated against, as a non-believer, at having to be part of prayers during council proceedings.

The High Court rejected the argument that it breached human rights or amounted to discrimination but it ruled that prayers could not be part of a council agenda because the statutory powers did not exist for them to be included.

Eric Pickles, the coalition government's communities' secretary, has ordered government lawyers to draw up emergency guidelines that will allow councils, in effect, to ignore the ruling. In the longer term, new legislation will give councils the "general power of competence" to reinstate prayers, a spokesman in his department said yesterday.

"It's been part of our rights; our ancestors have fought long and hard for the ability to have free religious assembly," said Mr Pickles. "This still remains a Christian country. We have an established Church of which the Queen is the head - these kind of ceremonies have been taking place for a long time and I think it's only right they should be respected.

"I think there's nothing wrong in standing up for part of British traditional Christian culture, as indeed I think it's absolutely right that we should stand up to defend British Muslims. We've stood for religious tolerance in this country, and it does seem to me that this judgment is a deeply illiberal and intolerant judgment."

Published: February 12, 2012 04:00 AM


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