BY ED WEST
THE NATIONAL Secular Society (NSS) is attempts to have prayers before local government meetings banned used human rights legislation.
The militant atheist group instructed lawyers to take a town council in north Devon to court for a judicial review of the practice, an ancient tradition across Britain. If it succeeds it could lead to council prayers becoming illegal.
Most councils choose to start meetings with Christian prayers, although a handful begin with those of other faiths. A survey by the Daily Mail found that 118 out of 181 large councils surveyed began meetings with a prayer.
The NSS has instructed solicitors Beachcroft to launch a judicial review against Bideford Town Council for starting its meetings with prayers, a tradition that dates to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
The NSS argues that prayers breach Article 9 of the Human Rights Act which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion for non-believers.
Keith Porteous Wood of the NSS said: “If members of councils wish to pray before their meeting they can do it, preferably in another room. We’ve no problem with that. We are not infringing anyone’s rights to worship. It has also been suggested the nonreligious should leave the room during prayers. But if you are elected to serve a public body, why should you leave the room? It’s an oldfashioned and inappropriate thing to do. The council is not there to promote religion, but to carry out services for the citizens of this country.” The NSS said the move was prompted by a complaint from atheist councillor Clive Bone, who has twice failed in attempts to have prayers ended.
Mayor Andrew Powell said it was “a bit of an over-reaction” to threaten to sue the 16member council.
Mike Judge of the Christian Institute said: “This is really a move by aggressive atheism trying to shove Christianity out of public life. The council shouldn’t back down. It definitely isn’t in breach of human rights law. Parliament has prayers. Is Parliament illegal?” Other councils expressed outrage. A spokesman for Boston Council said: “The mace bearer will knock on the door of the meeting so we all stand to attention, and then we all stand while the Lord’s Prayer is read. It is a very old tradition and it would be a terrible shame to end it.” A Tameside Council spokesman said: “We have Christian prayers by a priest. It is a Christian country after all. I can’t see why there would be a problem with it.”