Secularism: Thou shalt not pray, Athiest push for banning prayer as Human Rights Abuse
May 4th, 2010
UK Daily Mail
Militant atheists are trying to ban the age-old tradition of councils starting their meetings with Christian prayers by claiming it infringes the 'human rights' of non-believers.
The National Secular Society has instructed lawyers to take a town council in North Devon to court for a judicial review of the practice.
If the test case succeeds, Christian prayers - or those of any faith - would become illegal at thousands of councils.
Councils have been starting their meetings with prayers for centuries
Religious groups called the legal move an attack by 'aggressive atheists' on Britain's Christian heritage, while one mayor described it as 'religiously correct madness'.
It follows a succession of judicial rulings seen as undermining the Christian faith.
Last week Lord Justice Laws ruled that the sacking of a Christian relationship counsellor who refused to counsel homosexual couples on religious grounds was lawful because religious views cannot be protected by law.
And yesterday the Daily Mail told how preacher Dale Mcalpine was held in a cell for seven hours and charged a public order offence after telling a gay police community support officer that homosexuality was a sin.
The vast majority of councils choose to start meetings with Christian prayers. A handful begin with those of other faiths.
Eric Silver, Mayor of Harrow Council says banning prayer 'seems like religiously correct madness'
A survey by the Daily Mail of 181 of the 422 largest councils in England and Wales found 118 start their meetings with a prayer - of which nearly all were Christian. Only 63 had no prayers.
The NSS - which says it works to combat the influence of religion on governments - has instructed top legal firm Beachcroft to launch a judicial review against Bideford Town Council for starting its meetings with prayers.
The council has done so since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. But the NSS argues that prayers breach Article 9 of the Human Rights Act which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion for non-believers.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS, said: 'If members of councils wish to pray before their meeting they can do it, preferably in another room.
'We've no problem with that. We are not infringing anyone's rights to worship.
'It has also been suggested the non-religious should leave the room during prayers.
'But if you are elected to serve a public body, why should you leave the room? It's an old-fashioned and inappropriate thing to do.
'The council is not there to promote religion, but to carry out services for the citizens of this country.'
Bideford's annual budget is a fraction of that of larger councils, making it a soft target unlikely to engage expensive lawyers to fight the NSS.
Town clerk George McLauchlan said: 'The council is aware there is a potential judicial review.
'I don't know why they have singled out Bideford. This is a national matter not just a local matter.'
Andrea Williams, of the Christian Legal Centre, said: 'Religious freedom should be respected. In a free and civilised society, councils and public bodies should be free to open meetings with prayer.
'It's a fundamental freedom. We are not a secular state and society as a whole benefits from Christian precepts.'
Mike Judge, of the Christian Institute, said: 'It's a tradition that's gone on for hundreds of years.
'This is really a move by aggressive atheism trying to shove Christianity out of public life.
'The council shouldn't back down. It definitely isn't in breach of human rights law. Parliament has prayers, is Parliament illegal?'
Prayers before meetings vary from an elaborate ceremony at Boston Council in Lincolnshire, to prayers praising the 'creator and sustainer of all things' at Leicester and the three-word Latin prayer, Domine Dirige Nos - meaning 'Lord guide us' - at the City of London.
A spokesman for Boston Council said: 'The mace bearer will knock on the door of the meeting so we all stand to attention, and then we all stand while the Lord's Prayer is read. It is a very old tradition and it would be a terrible shame to end it.'
At Tameside Council, Greater Manchester, a spokesman said: 'We have Christian prayers by a priest. It is a Christian country after all. I can't see why there would be a problem with it.'
Eric Silver, Mayor of Harrow Council, North London, which starts meetings with a prayer read by a rabbi, said: 'All councillors of many different faiths have enjoyed the tradition of prayers at full council meetings.
'To ban this activity just seems like religiously correct madness and to go against common sense.'