Secularists have renewed efforts to prevent local councils from conducting prayers before meetings, this time targeting Denbighshire Council in Wales.
Councillor Paul Penlington called on Denbighshire Council to conduct prayers away from the council chamber, and has received the support of the National Secular Society (NSS).
However, the councillors have defended their freedom to continue praying at the start of meetings, claiming to ban them from doing so would itself be discriminatory.
This is not the first time local councils have been targeted by secularists wanting to put an end to prayers. In 2012, the NSS and a local atheist ex-councillor sued Bideford Town Council in Devon over its practice of praying at the start of council meetings – a practice understood to date back at least 450 years.
They claimed the prayers were discriminatory against atheist councillors, were a breach of human rights laws, and that the council had no lawful authority to hold prayers as part of its formal meetings.
But the case was fought on Bideford Council’s behalf by The Christian Institute’s Legal Defence Fund, and the judge at the time ruled against the central arguments of the secularists.
The Bideford case has been referenced in a statement by Denbighshire Council, which said it will not bow to pressure, especially as the ‘vast majority’ of council members had said they wanted prayers to continue in their current format.
Denbighshire Council’s statement also argued that while it is unlawful for councils to force councillors to pray, councils are within their rights to conduct prayers before meetings. It said its own prayers are lawful, as official meetings ‘do not formally begin until after prayers are said’.
Ciaran Kelly, spokesman for The Christian Institute, commented, ‘We’ve been here before with the secularists. The 2012 ruling established the principle that a body does not have to be secular in order to comply with the equality and human rights legislation.
‘So this council is well within its rights to hold its prayer meeting before the start of the council session and I very much hope it continues to do that’.
The Christian Institute’s in-house solicitor Sam Webster noted, ‘In 2012, the High Court ruled against the NSS’ central argument that council prayers discriminated against atheists and breached their human rights.
‘The High Court’s ruling forbade councils from holding prayers as part of the formal business of meetings, but the government responded by introducing new laws to restore the powers in England’.