Thursday, July 10, 2008

Devon Humanists campaign against council prayers

By Margaret Nelson - Posted on 08 July 2008

Further to our earlier report on Babergh District Council’s position on council prayers, Devon Humanists have issued the following press release:

Campaign to end the discriminatory practice of having prayers at Council meetings

Do you know that your local Council starts its meetings with prayers? If you say that to most people nowadays they think that you are joking.

Devon Humanists today announce the launch of a campaign to end the discriminatory practice of having prayers at Council meetings. Spokesman for Devon Humanists, Keith Denby said “The history of local Councils in Britain goes back to Saxon times and in the distant past the Church was very much a part of local administration, so to begin a Council meeting with prayers would have been very natural. But now in the 21st Century, Council taxpayers come from many cultures and belief systems and a large proportion of them do not think that religion should have influence in politics.

According to an IPSOS/Mori poll in 2006, 'more people think that the government pays too much attention to religious groups and leaders than to any other domestic group'.

Having prayers at Council meetings is discriminatory even if there is an attempt at multicultural prayers because one or another group will always be left out. The only sensible thing is to do away with them altogether and for people of faith to express that faith in private, not in the public domain.”

Keith Denby continued "Having prayers at meetings is genuinely off-putting for many people, from the outside it looks as if you need to be part of a special clique to participate in local government either as a member of the public or as a prospective councillor for election. The standing of local Councils is diminished by this gulf of understanding between tax payers and their governing Councils."

Members of Devon Humanists will be writing to local Councils to ask them to stop having prayers at meetings. Modern equality and anti-discrimination laws will be cited to show that Councils that continue with prayers at meetings are in breach of the law and of guidance from their own advisory bodies. The legal department of the National Association of Local Councils has written that the 'Council should consider removing the saying of prayers to ensure compliance with general statutory duty set out in s. 71 (1) of the 1976 (Race Discrimination) Act and to eliminate any risk of challenge under the Human Rights Act 1998'. Many Councils now expressly state an Equality & Discrimination policy that is directly at odds with continuing to have prayers at Council meetings. In many parts of the country Councils have taken note of their own policy statements and have ceased prayers but a surprising number – even the new unitary authorities - have retained prayers as 'being traditional'.

The campaign is supported by the British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society.

The legal situation would be clarified by a suitable test case, and members of Devon Humanists are prepared to embark on such a test case if it should prove necessary.

Devon Humanists website

Suffolk local authorities like Babergh will no longer exist soon, when the new unitary authorities are established. As reported on the BBC website,

Suffolk could be controlled by three local authorities if the government's Boundary Committee proposals are accepted.

The proposal is for two unitary authorities, one for Ipswich and Felixstowe, and the other covering the rest of the county except Lowestoft.

Lowestoft would split away from Suffolk and become part of the Norfolk local government structure.

In view of these imminent changes, it’s unlikely that we would consider legal action against any of the current authorities. However, we will be very interested to see what the new authorities do. It’s likely that they won’t observe quaint customs like council prayers, unless they adopt the county council’s current practice, which is to have optional prayers ten minutes before full council meetings.

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