Pickles returns to councils the freedom to pray
The inimitable Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has today written to local authority leaders, faith organisations and parishes in England, giving local councils a new power to continue to hold town-hall prayers, should they so wish. This intervention fortifies a major constitutional shift to localism that maintains the ‘defence of British liberties’ and responds to last week’s absurd ruling in the High Court which sought to ban the centuries-old practice of religious prayers in council meetings.
Mr Pickles hailed this a victory for localism, for freedom of worship and for parliamentary sovereignty over judicial activism. Last week the High Court ruling against Bideford Town Council was based on an interpretation of Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, rather than on the grounds of equality or human rights concerns. It judged that councils did not have the powers to hold prayers.
Ministers contend that it was never the intention or will of Parliament for the 40-year-old Act to prohibit the practice of prayers; especially given England has an Established Church governed by the Queen.
Mr Pickles has today fast-tracked and personally signed a Parliamentary Order which should render the judgement irrelevant, thereby protecting the freedom to pray. This new power can be exercised by all major local authorities in England from today (and in parishes by the end of March).
The Localism Act creates a ‘general power of competence’ which will legally permit councils to do anything an individual could do unless specifically prohibited by law (a useful guide may be found HERE: councils will not, for example, be able to ban or tax things, as an individual has no powers to do this). The Act gives councils more freedom to collaborate with others in new ways to drive down costs. It gives them increased confidence to do creative, innovative things to meet the needs of local people. Instead of being able to act only where the law says they may, local authorities will be liberated to do anything (in accordance with our Common Law tradition: provided it does not break any other laws). It does not remove any duties from local authorities - just like individuals they will continue to need to comply with duties placed on them. This should give councils which want to continue holding formal prayers the confidence and legal standing to do so.
Today’s intervention builds on the speech made by the Prime Minister in Christ Church, Oxford, in December, where he asserted: “We are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so." It also follows the official ministerial delegation to the Holy See this week led by Cabinet Minister, Baroness Warsi; in her speech, she criticised the intolerance of 'militant secularisation'.
Eric Pickles said: “The High Court judgement 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.”