Eric Pickles – Defender of the Faith
Frustrated by the impotence of the ballot box, Cllr Bone recruited the support of the National Secular Society, who are seeking a judicial review. The group is well known to readers of His Grace’s blog: it campaigns for absolute the separation of religion from the public sphere. They are of the opinion that these prayers are ‘unjustified (and thus unlawful) indirect discrimination against persons of no religion’. The state, they aver, is ‘a secular environment concerned with civic business’: God has no place.
By that logic, of course, they also seek the abolition of army and hospital chaplains; the removal of all references to God on Remembrance Sunday; the deposing of the Queen as Supreme Governor of the Church of England; and the termination of the BBC’s ‘Songs of Praise’.
The amusing thing is that Mr Bone is no longer a councillor: the NSS are bringing this case on behalf of someone who is actually suffering no alienation, exclusion or discrimination. And when Mr Bone was a councillor, he was not obliged to be present in the council chamber to participate in the prayers against his will: he was free to arrive afterwards.
The NSS are relying on the argument that praying goes against Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of thought and religion, as well as Article 14, which prohibits discrimination. Prayer, they argue, makes the non-believer uncomfortable; and prayer to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ prevents those of other faiths a full and equal participation.
Should the NSS succeed, the abolition will follow of prayers before the Commons and Lords begin their proceedings. This would represent a further diminution of the status of the Church of England, and constitute another attack upon the Christian foundations of the nation.
NSS president Terry Sanderson said: "We think it would be much better if people keep their prayers private and away from the council chamber so that everyone can participate in the democratic process without embarrassment or causing aggravation to members of other religions, or of none."
Enter Eric Pickles – Defender of the Faith.
He said (via his press office): "This Government recognises and respects the role that faith communities play in our society. Prayers are an important part of the religious and cultural fabric of the British nation. While the decision on whether to hold prayers is a matter for local councils, we believe they should have the freedom to do so."
His Grace thinks it more likely that Mr Pickles would have been even more robust had the matter been put to him directly on Newsnight. Press officers are notoriously cautious: Mr Pickles says exactly what he thinks. He should have bypassed his minders and tweeted his thoughts on the matter instead.
Bideford Town Council is boldly defending their right to pray before they conduct their business. Interestingly, their agenda for the forthcoming council meeting on Thursday 8th December says: ‘Agenda - 1. Prayers - subject to statutory regulation.’
The Prayer Book of the Church of England is, of course, subject to statutory regulation. But ad hoc prayers before the business of government may be conducted are not. His Grace is of the opinion that this spurious legal challenge will be thrown out because (a) it is manifestly silly to suggest that town hall prayers intimidate or discriminate against someone; and (b) whatever one thinks of the Human Rights Act/ECHR, it cuts both ways – Article 9 provides for freedom of religion ‘in worship, teaching, practice and observance’, ‘in community with others and in public or private’, and says that any restriction on this freedom should by necessary for public safety, public order, health or morals, or the protection of other’s freedoms.
Unless the NSS plan to adopt the means and methods of the Islamist, His Grace cannot quite see prayers at Bideford Town Council endangering the peace and security of the Realm.