Sunday, February 12, 2012

British Court Rules On Opening Town Council Meetings With Prayer

The dispute over opening city council sessions with prayer which has surfaced in many U.S. cities has now, according to the Telegraph, also become the subject of legal dispute in Britain.  A trial court has ruled in a challenge to the practice brought by the National Secular Society and a secular member of Council in the town of Bideford.  In National Secular Society v. Bideford Town Council, (EWHC, Feb. 10, 2012), the London High Court held that under the Local Government Act 1972, there is no statutory authority for a town council to have prayers or a period of quiet reflection as a part of the Council's business. It went on to hold, however, that if prayer were permitted, it would not violate the religious discrimination provisions of the Equality Act 2006 (now replaced by the Equality Act 2010). The court, referring to claims by the secular member of Council, said in part:
I do not see that the feelings of discomfort or exclusion which he has, and which he says are shared by a number of other actual or possible Councillors in the minority on this issue, should be regarded as a discriminatory disadvantage when its elimination would prevent the degree of comfort or composure which the majority seek being achieved, merely substituting one set of uncomfortable feelings for another.
However, according to today's Telegraph, Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles says that Britain's new Localism Act 2011 which will become effective in the next few weeks gives Councils a new “power of competence” to determine their own procedures.  According to Pickles, this new power should be broad enough to allow Councils to include prayers to open their meetings.