Bideford Town Council has been holding prayers at the start of each meeting since the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First. Prayers are usually led by a local minister drawn from a variety of local denominations, including Quakers. The practice continued without objection for around four hundred years until 2007, when a Liberal Democrat councillor, Clive Bone, was elected. Although prayers took place before councillors’ attendance was recorded, and he was free to absent himself, or simply to observe without participating, he petitioned to have the tradition scrapped – unsuccessfully.
Having failed to get prayers scrapped by democratic means, Mr Bone instead turned to the Courts. Today, the High Court ruled that the Council’s longstanding traditional practice – replicated in county, town, borough and parish councils across the country – is illegal.
Surprisingly, perhaps, this was not down to either the Equality Act or the Human Rights Act. In fact, the judge specifically found that ‘the manner in which the practice is carried out does not infringe either Mr Bone’s human rights nor does it unlawfully discriminate indirectly on the grounds of his lack of religious belief’. The judge held, rightly, that it was the atheist councillor who was seeking a special rule to force others to accommodate his lack of belief rather than the other way round, and far from simply asserting his right to freedom of conscience was trying to deny other councillors’ their freedom to exercise theirs.
Rather the ruling was on a narrow technical point. The judge, sitting alone, found that councillors had not been authorised by the Local Government Act 1972 to say prayers, and accordingly had no right to do so; and what is more, had not been entitled to do so since at least 1972.