Should prayers be a part of council meetings?

 The issue of prayers being said before council meetings appears to be moving towards the courts, after Bideford Town Council sought legal advice.

Earlier this year, the National Secular Society (NSS) applied to the High Court for a judicial review of the council’s decision to continue holding prayers as the first item of every council meeting. The NSS believes that religion should be separates from government sated that holding prayers before council meetings was an ‘archaic practice’ which was ‘not appropriate in modern-day Britain’. It claims prayers breach Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion for non-believers.

The NSS action was prompted by Bideford councillor Clive Bone, who has been trying to stop the prayers for three years, claiming that they make him feel uncomfortable and that they are deterring potential councillors from seeking office.

Now solicitor Tom Ellis, who has previously acted for cases on behalf of the Christian Institute, has had his offer to represent the council for free taken up by the authority.

George McLaughlan, Bideford Town Council’s clerk, said: “The solicitor was down here talking to us last week. He will work with the Christian Institute to defend the case. He has until Friday to file his intent to contest proceedings and then if permission is granted by the High Court for a judicial review to go ahead, we will have to supply further detailed evidence.’

There seems to be a spate of West Country councillors challenging the issue of prayers at council meetings.

Last year, Winscombe and Sandford Parish Council in Somerset ended a 115-year tradition of saying Christian prayers at the start of its meeting after a local resident wrote to express her shock at being asked to stand for prayers at a meeting. Three years earlier, Totnes Town Council replaced Christian prayers with ‘a quiet moment of reflection’ to ‘reflect the different needs of different councillors’.

However last year Dartmouth Town Council voted to continue saying prayers  and in 2006 a proposal by the leader of Teignbridge District Council to replace prayers with a voluntary 10-minute ‘period of reflection’ before meetings was rejected by a large minority of councillors.

For the record, my own District Council holds prayers outside the formal agenda of the council meeting and invites representatives of all religions and denominations and none to lead proceedings. And my Parish Council has never to my knowledge held prayers before meetings.

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  • Richard Elen 6th Aug '10 - 9:12am

    I’m wholeheartedly with the NSS on this one. And in addition to their position, we live in a multicultural society and you surely could not satisfy all religions, unless you went for a voluntary non-religious (not “non-denominational”) “period of reflection”, which probably wouldn’t fall under the definition of “prayers” – though such an arrangement sounds like a pretty good compromise to me if people insist on having something of that kind.

    Certainly, religion and government should be completely separate in my opinion. One’s personal religious beliefs may inform (or misinform) one’s approach to issues, but in my view government at all levels needs to be evidence-based and untainted by special interests of whatsoever kind.

  • As a Christian I am with the NSS. Christians should never seek to impose their beliefs on others – Jesus’ life is an expression of love and compassion and understanding. Christian cllrs can pray individually, and silently, or they can get together beforehand and pray collectively. They don’t need to force others to join them against their will. That is not respectful of other people who, like Christians are made in the image of God and deserve to be respected as such.

  • Question: Should prayers be a part of council meetings?
    Answer: No.

  • To some extent, I guess it depends on your views of the separation of church and state (with Councils being part of the state, obviously.) Personally, I don’t think they should – if my council (Fife) did I wouldn’t attend.

    However, the idea of a “time for reflection” should not be out of the question. The Scottish Parliament does this, rather than “prayers”, and it covers people of all religions and none (although around half of the contributors are either Church of Scotland or Catholic.) It also includes religions such as Zen Buddhism and Baha’i, as well as seeking spokespeople from charities or action groups and also schools – a number of teachers and pupils have been involved too. It seems to be more effective than the traditional “prayers” and can cover interesting topics.

  • Religion and politics are a dangerous mix – quite often strongly held religious beliefs of a representative just lead to their imposing their own religious views on their people – on more minor matters such as this or Sunday trading laws or on more major matters like laws on divorce or homosexuality. I find this selfish at best and harmful at worst and cases like this remind me of how dangerous it is to mix politics and religion – or, for that matter, deeply held beliefs and ideology in general.

    Obviously it does sometimes go the other way and sometimes a politician will do great things based on their religious belief – but sadly, as with many things, the majority of cases result in politicians using their religion as an excuse to be judgemental and discriminatory. And obviously I have no problem with politicians having faith or strong ideologies but it is something that should be put aside and not allowed to influence their decision unless they were elected, at least partially, on the basis of this ideology.

  • Seriously?! Prayers?
    religion is a purely private matter and has no place in the public affairs. (School included).

  • I like the solution adopted by the Northern Ireland Assembly, where the day begins with a few minutes of silence. This allows members who want to pray to pray without forcing it onto other members. I have to say that, as a Christian, I hate insincere prayers on public occasions, but I would happily take advantage of a time set aside for silent prayer.

  • Of course they shouldn’t be praying, they should be doing something worthwhile or useful.

  • David Blake 6th Aug '10 - 2:18pm

    Absolutely not.

  • Christine Headley 6th Aug '10 - 9:21pm

    My first experience of local government – London Borough of Lambeth 1984-90 – did not include prayers, and it was a bit of a shock to my system to encounter them at the London Borough of Sutton (1994-96). After three years of hearing the same prayer at every meeting of Stroud District Council, it has begun to annoy me, so I now go in (having already parked my papers at my seat – no, I’m not just late!) once prayers are over.

  • Prayers before Council meetings ? – an excellent reminder of our Christian Hertitage. Harks back to the days when you could be fined for not going to Church. ( Happy times) Let’s not forget those marvelous days when non-conformists were discriminated against, Catholics werent allowed to vote and in a fit of political correctness the Puritans banned Christmas.

    Under new Labour prayers could have become a performance indictator. Do Councils with prayers provide better services ? Has God got nothing better to do ?

    Well I’ve rung God up on me mobile phone and he says he’s like prayers before Council meetings scrapped . So that settles it.

  • Patrick Smith 7th Aug '10 - 10:57am

    All Councils should be free to chose themselves, if they decide to begin a Full Council Meeting with a prayer or not but if so,it ought to be brief and should respect the will of the elected members.

    The more morally guided and principled elected members I hope would not only be Liberal Democrats but also from the other Parties are all elected from different faith backgrounds and none.

    But the task of an elected member should be to represent all members of the Ward fairly and equally, without fear or favour or prejudice to faith,creed,colour,language,disabilities or political belief or none.

    I believe that an elected Member has a unquie role to perform and it should be seen as a privilege to serve one`s community so to promote and strive for the best in Neighbours of all religious beliefs and none.

    We are part of the same imperfect world that will remain so, regardless of all of our strivings and shortcomings.

    But those strivings perhaps will lesson or succeed in overcoming help for the many or even one Neighbour it is worthwhile to perform.

    All personal acts of goodness inspire and raise the esteem of the Individual heart,especially young persons : and that will always be strong if it remains Liberal in spirit and deed in practical life.

    We must all strive to reduce the most bitter of hatreds between peoples and recognise that there are examples of moral evil and prejudiced everywhere us.

    An elected Councillor should firmly understand that they are there to serve their fellow citizens and never be self serving.

    I think that personal prayer is closer to the heart of the individual than prayers before each Council sits.

  • Prayers can be inclusive.

    Except of course to the millions of people who don’t want to pray to their god at council meetings or who have no god to pray to in the first place. Not so inclusive to them, is it?

  • Whilst I supported Alan Connett’s proposed change in “prayers” at Teignbridge Council in 2006, I am highly sceptical of the NSS’s motivation, and belligerence.

    Richard Dawkins when attacked for hypocrisy by a Rabbi, on the fact he said grace at High Table dinner in New College, replied, he did so “Out of simple good manners and respect for the medieval traditions of my college.” Why should the traditions of councils not receive the same respect? As far as an atheist is concerned surely ‘prayers’ is a curious ritual of invoking the assistance and blessings of what they believe are a non-existent God. How can this be anything than a matter supreme indifference to an atheist?

    The NSS, not unlike some shrill fundamentalist Christians, want to pick a fight, want to take offence and be victims. Prayers are a tradition, and provided done in an appropriate way need not offend anyone, never mind Article 9.

    What next, will the NSS demand the council provide services on the (western) Christian feast-days, known as Christmas and Easter; so as not to discriminate against non Christian residents?

    Then there is the de facto national flag – Christian crosses named after saints!

  • Patrick Smith 7th Aug '10 - 1:30pm

    I think that Tom Cox`s point that even the arch atheist Richard Dawkins said prayers out of respect to good manners at his College is well made.

    That Richard Dawkins should should not be seen as being a good man inspite of his beliefs,that many would either agree with or ignore also enhances the basic freedom of what we choose to say,write or choose to read.

    I do sincerely hope that the NSS application to the High Court is thrown as being a non sequitor.

    Thomas Paine said in `The Rights of Man’ 1792

    `My country is the world and my religion is to do good’.

  • Of course the NSS are picking a fight, it’s a fight worth picking. Why the hell should Christians be allowed to subject everyone else to their beliefs and ceremonies, and why the hell is the onus on the non-religious to show politeness and accomodation by assenting to be subjected to it rather than on the religious to refrain from subjecting everyone to it in the first place?

    It’s really simple. The day the religious stop trying to ram their drivel down everyone else’s throats will be the day everyone else stops picking fights with them.

  • So Richard Dawkins respects mediaeval traditions? He shares opinions with Plato, too.

    When I was a councillor, we were subjected to prayers before annual and quarterly Council meetings only. I just sat there in silence, looked forward without bowing my head and kept my eyes open. I found it hugely uncomfortable, because I felt I was having a belief system and its rituals imposed on me.

    If we really have to have a pre-meeting ceremony, dressing up in antlers and dancing round the mace would be much more fun than a vicar reciting some tedious prayer. Give me Paganism over Christianity any day.

    Come on, keep religion and anti-religion well clear of government.

  • @Sesenco, the ‘prayers’ are decided by the chairman/mayor’s minister/priest – so you could have a pagan ritual! At the end of the day elected councillors make the decisions.

    @Iain, reductio ad absurdum – the NSS should demand the council offer normal services during Christmas and Easter holidays.

  • David,

    Your Latin is lousy. That’s not reductio ad absurdum, that’s a non sequitur. Christmas and Easter are national holidays, and local councils are not responsible for setting national holidays. Reductio ad absurdum in this case would be the NSS demanding that national holidays be decoupled from religious festivals entirely, and whaddaya know? That is precisely the position the NSS does take.

  • In which case Iain, I shall leave saying of prayers in Latin to Prof Dawkins.

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