Last week, a dispute was resolved in the English High Court between Bideford Town Council and one of its a former councillors backed by the National Secular Society. The two latter had taken the council to court to contest its right to open its meetings with prayer.
In a decision whose ramifications reverberated far beyond this quiet Devon town, Mr Justice Ouseley before whom the dispute was heard ruled all such prayer to be unlawful. He ruled them such, even though, as in the case of Bideford Council, the majority of councillors consistently indicated a wish to begin meetings with prayer and attendance and participation at them was strictly optional for councillors. .
The judge based his ruling on a section of the 1972 Local Government Act authorising councils to engage in anything ‘calculated to facilitate, or conducive or incidental to the discharge of any of their functions’. The judge construed this section in a purely empirical manner and calculated that an opening prayer could not possibly “facilitate” or be “conducive … to the discharge of any of their functions.”