Opinion: An Unlikely Defender of the Faith

Eric Pickles recently sent forth an encyclical and counterblast to the “illiberal and intolerant secularists” seeking to overturn “the right to worship [which is] a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty” and reverse “the fight for religious freedom in British history, deeply entwined with our political freedom”.

Our Town Clerk at once e-mailed us all a copy – on the very day, as it happened, that I went to Hertford for a County Council Meeting.

As usual, the meeting started at 10 30 a.m. And as usual those councillors who wished to pray met in the Council Chamber a little earlier at 10 20 a.m. Nothing wrong with that – their Prayer Meeting is not part of the Council Meeting.

We have a Christian tradition and we hold occasional Civic Services in the Parish Church or at the Cenotaph. These dignified and socially sanctioned occasions acknowledge matters of importance to community and recognise public, charitable or military service. They are appropriate public ceremonies, but not at decision taking meetings of the council nor connected with the administration of the town.

Eric Pickles is wrong to encourage councils to resolve that prayers should form part of the Council Meeting.

That would mean a majority of councillors imposing a religious position on the rest, on the members of the public who were present and, indirectly, on the whole town.

Most countries separate church and state. The UK is very much the exception with an established church, nominally governed by the Head of State, and 26 seats reserved for Church of England bishops in the House of Lords. But even here there is no established church in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales – only in England.

Our governance would be more inclusive if it was based on an even-handed secular basis, sensitive to our traditions and respecting equally all persons of religious faith or of none. This would remove the impression that one Christian sect has precedence over others and other faiths with a privileged place in our affairs – whether we assent to its doctrines or not.

I don’t belittle the inspiration and comfort those with religious convictions derive from their faith. Nor the important contributions that religious people make to the development of morals and ethics. Nor the way religious communities can transmit moral concepts and ethical behaviour between generations.

But if prayers are integral to the meetings, as in Bideford, then there is a part at least of the Council Meeting where non-Christian councillors are not on an equal footing with the rest.

The issue is not about any “freedom to pray”. It’s about whether or not councils should “hold prayers as part of the formal business at council meetings” (Eric’s words). From the tone of his letter and the way that he expresses himself he clearly has Christian prayers in mind.

Yes, England has a Christian tradition but even so there are places where this might seem divisive. As a minister in the UK government – one of the most diverse states in Europe – he ought to show greater sensitivity and realism.

Just because you can make something legal, Eric, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve made it right.

* Nick Hollinghurst is a Hertfordshire County Councillor and a member of Tring Town Council

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21 Comments

  • Grammar Police 24th Feb '12 - 9:19am

    Eric’s press release here “Eric Pickles gives councils back the freedom to pray” http://communities.gov.uk/news/corporate/2091511 is worrying nonsense.

    The general power of competence is a hugely significant change in the way local authorities work, and to dress it up in such nonsense about “freedom to pray” shows a complete lack of something.

  • Richard Dean 24th Feb '12 - 11:24am

    The general power of competence, in the Localism Act 2011, gives councils the right to legally do anything an individual could do unless specifically prohibited by law.

    Does the recent ruling not mean that prayers as part of a council meeting ARE specifically prohibited by law ?

    The law in question is the Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 , which like all statute law only becomes effective after interpretation in the courts, which is what happened. And as statute law, does it not overide common law, since otherwise the statute would have needed to have included a specific ememption?

    I wonder, in fact, where the general power of competence may be rather unwise. Councils have very different duties and responsibilites than individuals, so why should they have the same rights as individuals?

  • Grammar Police 24th Feb '12 - 12:01pm

    “Does the recent ruling not mean that prayers as part of a council meeting ARE specifically prohibited by law ? ”

    No, because the ruling was that having prayers as part of the formal meeting was outside the powers of s 111. This is because at the moment, councils can only do what they are explicitly enabled/required to do by law. Once the general power of competence is in force, this changes . . .

  • Richard Dean 24th Feb '12 - 12:23pm

    Grammer Police – That’s very helpful, thanks. Your legal expertise would again be much appreciated. I started a law course at the Open Univeristy, but could not continue because of the huge hike in fees …

    Does an individual have the legal right to force others to attend his/her prayers? I hope not! And if not, the Localism Bill surely does not allow councils to do that?

  • Will not the general power of competence equally empower local councils with non-Christian majorities to impose whatever ritual they want?

  • Richard Dean 24th Feb '12 - 1:18pm

    A council chamber is not a place of worship.

    If Pickles is right, how long are prayers allowed to go on for? I know individuals who can pray for hours on end. Which prayers are permissible? Protestant only? Catholic? Evangelical? Some religions pray with song, ok? If there are members of several diffrent religions, should time be given for the prayers of each one in succession? Should non-believers be excluded? Is keneeling allowed? Should shoes be removed for those religions that remove shoes to pray? Is chanting allowed? Beating of the breast?

    One of the important English traditions is common sense. What a pity Pickles does not seem to have any!

  • @Richard Dean

    Surely this is all about local democracy, a council can have prayers if they wish, likewise if a council member doesn’t wish for prayers to be part of the meeting then there is the democratic right to find enough supporters to back a motion against. All of the questions you ask have one common answer, that is it will be up to the democratic will of the council itself. If the council as a body lacks common sense then it is up to the local electorate to vote in people with an abundance of it.

    You can’t say that you want more local democracy and then complain like mad when a council exercises that democracy (even if, as per the comment from Ivan, it means prayers from another faith are held).

  • People can say their prayers in private if they wish but it should not be on the agenda of a public meeting. It discriminates against people who do not share that faith or any.
    The debate opens up the issue of the influence of religion in society and how it can divide society ; which is why true Liberal oppose so called faith schools as their very obnoxious existence separates children from each other as does for example having grammar schools. We see in Northern Ireland how faith divides communities and has caused, in that unhappy part of the British Isles, years of civil war.
    Segregation is terrible however it is implemented whether on creed, colour or religion and merely leads to ignorance and bigotry.

  • @david orr
    ” It discriminates against people who do not share that faith or any”

    Surely, in a democracy you will always discriminate against some one, it’s the colour of the rosette which is often the decider for what is and isn’t discrimination. At the moment we don’t have secular government, but if you want this then surely you should campaign for it to see if the public agree.

    “The debate opens up the issue of the influence of religion in society and how it can divide society”
    But such divides can exist without the influence of religion. I would say it’s more of a human condition problem than a religious one, after all secularists can be just as intolerant as the most ardent zealot .

  • @ Nick Hollinghurst
    “The central issue is whether or not a group of elected politicians should resolve to make prayers an *integral part of the formal business of the council”

    I think I would have to disagree, I think the question is really “do we believe in local democracy, or have we just been paying lip service to it?”

    “we must wonder what is the position of minority councillors who may hold some faith incompatible with that of the majority or who may have no faith at all”

    As we live in a multi faith society I would guess that at some point you have been to a wedding or something where you didn’t really have a clue what was going on. When it got to the point of prayers did you:

    a. Mumble along even though you didn’t really understand it or didn’t even really believe it.
    b. Insist on your rights and go outside every time some one started muttering something that sounded like a prayer.
    c. Sit there quietly, not praying but respecting the beliefs of others.

    As a non-practicing Methodist I’ve had plenty of occasion to do C. Would it not be the tolerant thing to do for those council members to also select option C out of respect to a democratic choice?

  • Richard Dean 24th Feb '12 - 8:05pm

    I agree with Nick.

    1. It is a fundament human right not to have someone else’s religion forced upon you.

    2. British people have fought civil wars and parliamentary battles over centuries to achieve a separation between church and state. NOT having prayers on an agenda is the UK tradition.

    3. The right and tradition might not be so troubled if there was a requirement for UNANIMOUS agreement for prayers on an agenda, and for cancellation if just one elected member objects, but …

    4. There is also the public to consider, since the public may be present and have different beliefs, and …

    5. A much more relevant activity would be to recite an oath of office, referring if desired to a book chosen by the reciter, before participating in any meeting, and …

    6. A possible legal requirement might be for councils to provide suitable private rooms for optional prayers … with realistic rents for their use paid by those who use them

    I wonder whether a short private members bill alongt these lines could usefully resolve this issue?

  • @Richard Dean

    “It is a fundament human right not to have someone else’s religion forced upon you”
    Is it not also fundamental right to not to have some one else’s lack of religion forced upon you?

    “British people have fought civil wars and parliamentary battles over centuries to achieve a separation between church and state. NOT having prayers on an agenda is the UK tradition.”

    But didn’t they fight such wars against undemocratic dictatorship? Didn’t all of these wars you talk of lead to the belief that democracy, for all of it’s faults, is the best system for us. Are you willing to throw all of that away for minority dictatorship, if so, why not just scrap parliament and have a monarch rule?

    “The right and tradition might not be so troubled if there was a requirement for UNANIMOUS agreement for prayers on an agenda, and for cancellation if just one elected member objects,”

    Would that be truly democratic, how would it play if every motion to conference had to have unanimous agreement before MPs had to take notice?

    “There is also the public to consider, since the public may be present and have different beliefs,”
    Are the public so intolerant of the beliefs of others? What about any public present who do believe?

    “A much more relevant activity would be to recite an oath of office, referring if desired to a book chosen by the reciter, before participating in any meeting”

    Well, the council probably has that choice now, it may well make a democratic decision to go down that route.

    ” A possible legal requirement might be for councils to provide suitable private rooms…..”

    Many companies offer “quiet” rooms open to all faiths/those with no faith – they do this without charge, I would imagine a lot councils do this already.

  • Richard Dean 24th Feb '12 - 10:45pm

    DEMOCRACY AND RIGHTS

    Would you agree that there is no reason at all why council meetings should not be subject to regulations and laws that are determined nationally, perhaps even at ECHR level? Such laws can safeguard a democracy against local anti-democratic activities by, for example, specifyting quorums, requiring certaining voting to be secret, and prohibiting certan kinds of undue influence, such as councillors accepting bribes for votes. Is that ok? No.

    The choice that appears to be being discussed here seems to be between

    1. Allowing a majority to force a minority to attend its religious ceremonies, or
    2. Requiring the majority to perform those acts without offence to the minority

    Given that option 1 violates a right and option 2 does not, and that option 2 is easy to arrange, the common sense (and very British) approach is to select option 2. This is the rights view. Given that some people obviously actually want to force the minority in the option 1 way, it is sensible for the national or EU law to protect the abuse of rights by prohibiting option 1.

    But the democracy view may be as important. Every ritual has a purpose. In a council meeting the purpose is to allow an exchange of views, ideas, and preferences, including minorotiy opinions, that lead to decisions. That is what democracy is about, and in my view laws about council meetings should support that purpose and prevent abuse of it. That purpose would obviously be well served by requiring councillors to recite an oath of office. It would not be served at all, and in my view would be damaged, by any ritual that favours one set of lawful beliefs over another, such as the prayers of a religion that is not shared by all.

    I rest my case, M’Lud. Anyway, I gotta sleeo. 🙂

  • “England has a Christian tradition but even so there are places where this might seem divisive.”

    Yes. I understand that in my area fairly recently, there were protests locally against a planning application to build a mosque. The protestors argued that it would be a traffic hazard.

    Councillors had to make an objective decision on the basis of planning law. Christian prayers ahead of that decision would surely have cast a blight on any refusal.

  • Could those people who refer to “Fundamental Human Rights” be clear what they mean by that. Do they mean inalienable rights which cannot be infringed under any circumstances (the context tends to suggest that they do).

    The full title of the European Convention on Human Rights is the “Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms” and, with one exception, every one of those rights can be limited or restricted in some way. IIRC other key human rights charters adopt a similar approach so if you are talking about a new “super-right” you are talking about major, major revision of the way we approach human rights.

  • @Richard Dean

    Sleep is such a wonderous thing isn’t it 😀 I’m stuck doing accounts, with the occasional debate break, so I thought I’d leave a comment for the morning 😉

    “Would you agree that there is no reason at all why council meetings should not be subject to regulations and laws that are determined nationally, perhaps even at ECHR level”

    Of course I agree, that is what happens now of course.

    “The choice that appears to be being discussed here seems to be between …..”

    You see, this is where we really disagree, you’re concentrating on religion as you believe it shouldn’t be part of council meetings, but I’m talking about democracy. I believe that if local democracy is going to mean anything then the option must be allowed, you can’t just have the bits of democracy you like and then bin the rest.

    I think you may also find that option 1 doesn’t violate any rights at the moment. As we have no (official) seperation between church and state then there is no law banning such things occuring. In the ECHR the right to congregate in public or private to manifest religion or belief in worship is guaranteed, unless it is limited by a necessary law. If anything, attempting to prevent such prayer meetings (i.e. your option 2) without such a law may well contrevene the convention.

    Now if you wish to seperate the state from religion as other countries have done that is fine by me, as long as it’s done under a democratic mandate of course. But until such time I feel the right of councils to democratic self determination on this issue should be respected.

  • Malcolm Todd 25th Feb '12 - 12:33am

    How does being in the same room as some people while they pray infringe your human rights? Or prevent you playing a full part in the subsequent meeting? Should someone who considers all forms of stimulant to be proscribed by their religion be able to get the Council banned from including ‘Coffee’ on any agendas?
    I find most prayers ridiculous, and prayers in connection with public meetings invariably inappropriate. If I were a member of a Council I would vote to get rid of prayers if we had them, and feel irritated and uncomfortable to be present while prayers were said. No more irritated and uncomfortable than being present when most Tory members speak anyway, though, regardless of whether they mention God.

  • Jaska Alanko 25th Feb '12 - 2:34pm

    What troubles me about these ‘Christian warriors’ is their assumption that they speak on behalf of all Christians. They advocate the established church’s doctrinal and political views and interests. Those of us who believe that genuine and primitive Christian values and ideals are often cherished and upheld more earnestly by independent Christian groups feel misrepresented and put upon by Mr Pickles and his kind. This amounts to another form of discrimination by the established church and their politically, rather than spiritually motivated powe brokers. So all you non-believers spare a thought for us disestablished believers too. And Mr Pickles stop taking ‘all Christians’ for granted.

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