It has been a turbulent few months for the subject of prayers being part of the formal agenda at council meetings. The High Court ruled against prayers being included in an agenda under the Local Government Act 1972. Then, The Localism Act trumped that ruling by allowing council’s if they wish to have prayers included on the council agenda.
This point of should prayers be or not part of the agenda for the full meeting of Cornwall Council. Over 29 Councillors spoke during this debate, with the majority of those speakers supportive of prayer’s being part of the council agenda.
I have blogged before about being apathetic towards religion and can see both sides viewpoint. The one point I disagreed with in the original motion was prayers should be only Christian. I feel if we should have prayers they should be fully inclusive of the people we represent. I therefore, put in an amendment seconded by John Pollard and is as follows (option 3 in the agenda):
“Commence a practice of saying prayers of different religions on a rotational basis as part of the formal agenda for Council meetings.”
I felt this was a sensible solution to allow other faiths to have the ability if they wanted to be able to take part in prayers. My motion was narrowly defeated, and the vote was carried for Christian (only) prayers to be part of the formal agenda.
This resolution will no doubt have an impact on many other local authorities throughout England and Wales. As many will now follow Cornwall Council’s lead and re-introduce prayers post the High Court Bideford judgement.
It will be interesting to see if any legal challenge will come post the decision at todays Cornwall Council meeting.
Tuesdays meeting of the full membership of Cornwall Council has included on the agenda a recommendation to bring back the practice of having prayers said at the start of a council meeting, or continue the current practice post the Bideford Council High Court case. That recommendation is as follows:
(1) That it be determined whether or not to revert to the practice of holding prayers during Full Council meetings following consideration of the options set out at paragraph 3.8 of this report; and
(2) If Members decide to include prayers as part of the formal Council agenda of future meetings, it be agreed that both elected Members and officers be free to remain but not to participate in or to leave the Council Chamber for the duration of the agenda item on prayers.
Now you might be wondering way the council is discussing this after all the High Court has given judgement (subject to any appeal). The simple reason is since February 18th The Localism Act became law. This piece of legislation gives councils the power to do this under Section 1 of the Localism Act, provides in general terms, a local authority has the power to do anything an individual may do. This considerably broadens the power of Council beyond the powers contained in the 1972 Act which were the subject of the Bideford judgment.
My view is if, and I suspect there will be some resistance to prayers being part of council business, I would like to see prayers from different faiths. After all, not everyone at the council, or in Cornwall is a Anglican. However, nothing is ever simple, especially at Cornwall Council.
Prayers being on the official agenda of any council meeting was not seen as hotly contested issue. Those who disagreed with them stood outside until they were completed. While this for some was not desirable, it was accepted as a compromise. However, the recent High Court case concerning Bideford Town Council and the National Secular Society has certainly put the fox in the hen-house. The ruling, subject to the full legal explanation, makes it unlawful for prayers to be part of the official agenda.
The Chairman of the Council, Pat Harvey with great diplomacy, has temporally removed prayers from the official agenda for the forthcoming council meeting on the 21st February and the following meeting in March. This will allow the council to understand fully the impact of the ruling and to make sure the council is not acting in an unlawful way. My understanding is the Judge presiding over the case has given Bideford TC the right to appeal. So, all could change again if this appeal is upheld.
As you would expect, this news of prayers being removed has not gone down well with many Cornwall Councillors. Some have called for the ruling to be ignored, others have claimed a minority have dictated to a majority. Of course there is a one or ten who have welcomed the removal of prayers.
For the last few days I have thought about this ruling and I can to a point, see both sides views on this emotive subject. My view is it has never concerned me to see prayers on the council agenda, likewise it will not worry me not to see them on the agenda. The is because my indifference to religion. For many years I have struggled to understand some of the actions people of faith/religion do in the name of that certain religion. This is not just recent events, but also historical events too. Being well-travelled, I have been luckily to have visited not only many holy sites of Christianity, but also those of other faiths. One recurring theme at all these sites is war and suffering.
From these experiences I would now class myself as apathetic when it comes to religion. I neither fully believe, nor can completely dismiss God; or some sort of other deity. Many of my friends take similar viewpoints to me or take a more established view of being in the atheist camp or in the religious camp. Either viewpoint is not wrong. What is wrong is not respecting those different thoughts and trying to dictate what is the right viewpoint.
Lastly, could this ruling could lead onto an even bigger debate of Church and State being so closely connected? Maybe that is a debate no-one wants to start, especially in a court of law.
For the last few months there has been a Judicial Review going through the High Court on prayers being part of the official council agenda. This case concerns Bideford Town Council with the case being brought before the High Court by the National Secular Society (NSS) after a compromise solution could not be agreed upon . The judgement today of prayers being ‘unlawful’ as official business will have a far-reaching impact on various Local Authorities.
In the judgement:
Mr Justice Ouseley, directed: “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”.
It will be interesting to see what action Cornwall Council take in-light of this ruling. From within the Council there has been a concern from a growing number of Councillors who leave the chamber when prayers take place. Staff in principle can also leave the room, but many who I have spoken to feel they cannot. For the record I stay in the room out of respect, not by any firm religious conviction. The compromise could be prayers take place before the official meeting takes starts.
This ruling will also affect Town and Parish Council’s. Not all have prayers as the two town council’s I attend (being a member of Porthleven’s) only Helston Town Council has prayers, where as Porthleven does not.
No doubt there will be many e-mails, letters and phone calls for ‘guidance’ on this matter to council legal officers and organisations like the Local Government Association and Cornwall Association of Local Government (CALC). I think it will be a busy(er) few weeks for them!