"The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a Council is not lawful"
Despite Mr Bone no longer being a councillor (and so not suffering alienation, exclusion or discrimination), the High Court has today determined that prayer before a council meeting is indeed unlawful and there 'is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue'. Mr Justice Ouseley said: "I do not think the 1972 Act... 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."
And so the National Secular Society is victorious, and telling us about it. Indeed, they have doubtless broken out the champagne to celebrate a double victory as the appeal of Peter and Hazelmary Bull has also been lost. The owners of the Chymorvah B&B near Penzance were ordered last year to pay £3,600 in damages to Stephen Preddy and Martyn Hall, a gay couple in a civil partnership who were denied a marital bed. An Englishman's B&B is no longer his castle.
It is important to note that the NSS succeeded in only one of its three lines of argument in the case against Bideford Council, but a win is a win: henceforth, no council in England or Wales will be free to hold prayers as part of its formal proceedings because prayer is deemed 'not useful' to its work.
Speaking for the council, James Dingemans QC pointed out that both local democracy in Bideford and Parliament itself had determined that such prayers may and ought to continue. It would appear that the overarching philosophy of secular-humanist-rights negates democracy. But we already knew that. While this case was not won on the basis of human rights infringement, it is interesting that the NSS is unhelpfully conflating it with the judgement of Lord Justice Laws in the case of McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd (2010), which determined: 'The precepts of any one religion, and belief system, cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of another. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic.'
Mr Dingemans had warned of 'far-reaching consequences' if the NSS were to succeed. As His Grace wrote some months ago, prayers in Parliament may cease, the Coronation Oath may be endangered, as would a council's involvement on Remembrance Sunday and possibly even chaplains serving in HM Armed Forces. Under the guise of 'neutrality', secularism would become the inviolable and immutable state orthodoxy in the civic space. 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 Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood is already propagating the 'neutral' lie. He says: "This judgment is an important victory for everyone who wants a secular society, one that neither advantages nor disadvantages people because of their religion or lack of it."
The fact that the Judge has not upheld the complaint on human rights grounds may reprieve parliamentary prayers, the Coronation Oath, Army chaplains and participation in remembrance services. But His Grace is struck by Mr Justice Ouseley's reasoning that council prayers are unlawful because there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue. Have we exchanged an ancient system of law and jurisprudence which was based on statutory prohibition for one which relies on express permission?
Perhaps Eric Pickles – Defender of the Faith - might care to remedy this? He has previously said: "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."
Perhaps a permissive clause in the next Local Authority Bill could, in true 'Big Society' fashion, expressly devolve the matter of prayer to the lowest level of democratic participation? What a community does in public or private should be permitted unless the law forbids or restricts it. There should be no restriction on prayer - simply because it poses no threat to public safety, public order, health or morals.