Council Prayers: NSS’s Own Goal

“Benedic, Domine, dona Tua in usum nostrum, et nos in servitium Tuum, per Iesum Christu, Dominum nostrum. Amen.”

I was back at the Oxford Union last week in the snow, this time to oppose the motion ‘This House believes that the dividing line between religion and politics should shine brightly’. We were at the formal black-tie pre-debate dinner and the Union President, a friendly and confident young woman called Lauren, had called us all to stand while she prayed the traditional Latin grace. (Translated, it read “Bless, O Lord, us with Your gifts and us in Your service, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”)

I struggled to offer our invocation to the Almighty as I was smiling inwardly at the irony. Attending the dinner and subsequently proposing the motion in the debate were Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, Lord Warner of Brockley, chair of the Parliamentary Humanist Group, and Dr Peter Cave, chair of Humanist Philosophers of Great Britain – all colleagues and, apparently, each an avowed non-praying atheist.

For me the irony was double and delicious as I knew that the London-based National Secular Society was in the process of hauling little Bideford Town Council (16 councillors for a population of 14,000 in sleepy north Devon) through the courts over their insistence that the council holds prayers at the beginning of their municipal meetings. Properly elected Bideford councillors had democratically voted twice to keep council prayers, but that wasn’t enough for the militant secularists at NSS, represented at the dinner and in the debate of course by the amiable and courteous Keith Porteous Wood. What, I wondered, is going through his mind as the President called us publicly to pray – an overtly religious act in that formative hot-house for thrusting young politicians and future prime ministers (here). Obviously no brightly shining dividing line there.

Next day as I returned to London the news came out that NSS had won their case in the High Court. However, although their argument rested on three points – that the prayers were discriminatory against atheist councillors, that the prayers were a breach of human rights laws, and that the council had no lawful authority to hold prayers as part of its formal meetings – it was notable that Mr Justice Ouseley rejected the first two claims about discrimination and human rights and only upheld the third more minor legal/technical one.

Before the High Court ruling the Guardian’s assistant editor Michael White had argued that local communities “should surely be allowed to sort out their own arrangements without the help of the NSS complaining that… human rights have been infringed” (here).

And Equalities & Human Rights chief Trevor Phillips said that he “dropped his coffee” when he heard Keith Porteous Wood saying on the radio that he wanted to use the Human Rights Act to prosecute councillors in Devon. Phillips reckoned the move was “nonsense on stilts” (here).

And in the event, while NSS celebrated their win on the minor technical point, they lost the major human rights and discrimination cases (which, apparently, they cannot appeal as they won the other) and have been exposed as proponents of a hard-faced small-minded illiberal secular fundamentalism that acts against free choice and local democracy. And on the way they’ve stirred up furious controversy and helpful public debate.

Thus they’ve lost the plot, scored an own goal and Communities & Local Government minister Eric Pickles has promised to rub their noses in it by using new localism powers to make council prayers legal again.

Explaining why, he said yesterday: “The High Court judgment has far wider significance than just the municipal agenda of Bideford Town Council.

“By effectively reversing that illiberal ruling, we are striking a blow for localism over central interference, for freedom to worship over intolerant secularism, for Parliamentary sovereignty over judicial activism, and for long-standing British liberties over modern-day political correctness.

“Last week’s case should be seen as a wake-up call. For too long, the public sector has been used to marginalise and attack faith in public life, undermining the very foundations of the British nation. But this week, the tables have been turned” (here).

Exactly right Eric. We owe you a curry (here). And to cap it all diminutive Bideford Town Council voted two days ago to appeal the High Court ruling (here).

Thankfully the issue has legs and won’t go away quietly. Someone, it seems, has been praying…

3 thoughts on “Council Prayers: NSS’s Own Goal

  1. Hopefully Bideford won’t waste public money by appealing. It seems pontless given that Pickles is going to change the law. Don’t misunderstand me, if councillors want to say prayers, fine. Others who don’t can enter the chamber afterwards. I just feel there are far more important issues for local authorities, Government and the courts to concentrate on.

  2. What’s the problem with people who want to pray before a meeting doing that before the meeting formally begins?

    Alan Craig, in his 8 years as a Councillor, was never once involved in prayers as part of the agenda of a meeting. In the context of this article and issue, does he claim to have ever made a fuss about that?

  3. I’m looking forward to the day that Alan supports the right of Tower Hamlets council to insist on being able to pray towards Mecca during official council meetings. I assume he is also in support of such musim-dominated councils being able to insist on there being no food in council meetings during Ramadan. Or perhaps Alan would prefer any religion (including islam) to the idea of secularism.

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