Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Council prayers and the Bideford case

Earlier this month, Ouseley J gave judgment in the High Court in the case of R (National Secular Society) v Bideford Town Council [2012] EWHC 175 (Admin).  As everyone must know by now, the case concerned the right of the defendant council to hold public prayers as part of its official business at meetings.

I have blogged before about the British courts' general acceptance of the secular character of the law, an acceptance which is qualified only to a limited extent by the continuing established status of the Church of England and certain other traditional practices.  So it was not a great surprise that the court ruled against the council, citing as it did so two of the authorities which I discussed in my earlier blog post (McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd and R (Johns) v Derby City Council).  The judge said:
It is not for a Court to rule upon the likelihood of divine, and presumptively beneficial, guidance being available or the effectiveness of Christian public prayer in obtaining it....

....I do not think that the [Local Government Act 1972], 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 in number, to exclude or, even to a modest extent, to impose burdens on or even to mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression of them. They are all equally elected Councillors.
The court's decision, as indicated by this quotation, was based on the Local Government Act 1972.  Parallel challenges on the basis of the Equality Acts 2006 and 2010 and the ECHR failed.

In response to the ruling, the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has rushed the "general power of competence" in the Localism Act 2011 into operation.  This power, which gives local authorities the power to do anything that an individual can lawfully do, is said to be wide enough to allow the continuation of prayers at council meetings.  The National Secular Society, which was one of the claimants in the Bideford case, has expressed doubts as to whether this legislative change will legitimise the practice.