England & Wales

Localism trumps secularism on council prayers

This article was first published by Total Politics.

The recent High Court ruling that councils have no statutory right to hold prayers before meetings has continues to reverberate in local government.

The decision follows an action bought against Bideford Town Council in Devon by a former councillor. Media prominence for the case was ensured by the involvement of national bodies such as the National Secular Society, who supported the action, and the Christian Institute, who helped the council defend it.

Mr Justice Ouseley, hearing the case, ruled that saying prayers was not discriminatory or counter to equalities legislation, but that under the 1972 Local Government Act, councils had no statutory power to say prayers at any meeting that councillors were formally required to attend. It’s hard to see that anyone will be very happy with this verdict. The council have lost the right to say prayers, but the secularists have won on a technicality while apparently losing the point of principle at stake. Secretary of state Eric Pickles has weighed in on the debate, expressing his dismay at the verdict and clarifying his view that the power of general competence introduced by last year’s Localism Act and due to commence in April will allow councils to hold prayers should they choose to do so. Barring legal niceties, then, it appears that the secularists may have won a battle but lost the war.

Obviously there are a lot of issues at play here, including  tensions between inclusivity and freedom of worship and between national and local culture. But while both parties in the specific dispute are, in different ways, losers: the winner in all this may be the principle of local democracy itself.

What this incident reminds us is that councils are not simply bureaucracies that deliver or commission public services. They are accountable, democratic bodies that represent the communities they serve. What happens in councils is not just about efficiency; it’s about values, priorities and choices about what sort of community people want to live in. ‘Cultural’ questions like prayer are not peripheral to what councils do; they are central to it. It’s important therefore that these issues are openly debated and contested.

If, as Eric Pickles intends, the forthcoming general power of competence will allow councils more freedom to make their own arrangements in these matters, we can also expect to see a greater variation across different parts of the country. That’s likely to create outcomes that will feel uncomfortable for people of all faiths and none. But as long as these outcomes are based in a sound local democratic process, this diversity is something we should celebrate.

So far so good, but the Bideford case does raise (albeit tangentially) one further issue that stands in the way of this local democratic debate about values. The councillor who objected to the prayers did so on the basis that they felt “outdated, antiquated and a turnoff”. For many in the community this description would apply to much of the way councils do business. A way of operating that is still largely based around minutes, meetings and motions. We see some local authorities responding to this by taking meetings out of the town hall and into the community, but their capacity to do so is limited by the statutory requirements placed upon them by central government and the forms of meeting that these mandate. This remains a barrier to local democracy. Until Whitehall stops prescribing what sort of issue the council must meet about and how often, a local debate about what sort of community people want to live in will always take place within a more limited framework than we might like.