The UK High Court of Justice ruled Friday that the Bideford Town Council does not have authority to conduct prayers at the beginning of its official meetings. The judgment [opinion, PDF] followed a Judicial Review initiated by the National Secular Society (NSS) [advocacy website; press release] to challenge the practice of prayers as part of the formal business of council meetings, attendance at which is mandatory for local councillors. Even though prayer was conducted at meetings before attendance was taken, with councillors told they could abstain from such portions of meetings, the prayer was included in the formal list of items sent to councillors when they were summoned, and was included in the meeting minutes later sent out. Justice Ouseley wrote for the High Court:
The duties of Parish councillors and the way in which a Parish Council must conduct its business are laid down in the Local Government Act 1972 ... There is no specific statutory power to say prayers or to have any period of quiet reflection as part of the business of the Council ... Accordingly, I have come to the view that the Council has no power to hold prayers as part of a formal Council meeting, or to summon Councillors to a meeting at which such prayers are on the agenda.Ouseley rejected the Council's argument for statutory authority—that it may conduct other "functions" not specifically listed in the Local Government Act—on the basis that prayer is not a "function" under the Act. Ouseley made clear that his ruling does not affect whether Councillors can hold prayer before meetings, but to conduct it at the formal beginning of meetings is not allowed. Ouseley also ruled that if the practice were lawful, that under the law "the manner in which the practice is carried out in the circumstances of Bideford does not infringe" on individual human rights, nor does it unlawfully discriminate on the grounds of an individual's lack of religious belief.
NSS is a British organization committed to promoting separation of church and state. It brought the action against the Bideford Town Council after atheist Council member Clive Bone complained about the prayer. Although NSS was pleased with the judgment, some Christian groups have questioned what its effects will be. Christian Institute [advocacy website; press release] spokesman Simon Calvert noted his group "welcome[s] the finding that the saying of prayers isn't discriminatory, or a breach of equality laws, or human rights laws." He believes the ruling was purely based on statutory construction, not on whether the prayer infringes on rights, so that an amendment or passage of a new law could make prayer at meetings lawful. Last month the US Supreme Court [official website] declined to review [JURIST report] a case concerning whether a county board of commissioners in North Carolina violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment [LII backgrounder] by opening their public meetings with prayers.