Do prayers belong on council agenda?

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BRACKLEY Town Council will be reviewing its stance on prayers during meetings following a High Court ruling which said a Devon council was acting unlawfully.

Last week Mr Justice Ouseley ruled prayers were not lawful under the Local Government Act 1972 which states prayers can be said as long as they are not part of the formal meeting.

The ruling followed a complaint by an atheist member of Bideford Town Council and was backed by the National Secular Society. The NCS argued it was important to separate state and religion and forcing councillors to attend prayers was a breach of their human rights.

Brackley Town Council currently puts prayers on the agenda of its monthly Full Council meetings which are led by clergy from the town.

Mayor Theo Hayward said: “Brackley Town Council is one of those councils which has a Mayor’s Chaplin and prayers are said at the full council meeting each month.

“Members respect the high court ruling but have not had time to discuss the matter at this stage.”

Ms Hayward said with appeals pending on the matter the situation was changing all the time and hoped for more clarity from the Government ahead of BTC’s next full meeting in March.

Ms Hayward said any comment could prejudice future debate but added: “The people on the street are free to give their opinion and things like the Advertiser’s Talking Point are actually very interesting and a useful read from the council point of view. It will give the council an understanding of whether the people they are representing think it is a good idea that prayers are said or not.”

This week the Bishop of Peterborough, the Rt Rev Donald Allister, said in a statement that Britian is a constitutionally Christian country with prayers said at every level of local and national government, and he hopes the practice will continue.

He added: “Prayers need not be part of the official business, and those wishing to enter a meeting after prayers but before the official start should of course be free to do so. It is surely right to seek God’s guidance in our decision making, and his blessing on our communities.”

Former Brackley town councillor Peter Joyce also said Britain is a Christian country and added: “Prayers should remain, pure and simple. I think this is just one person’s thoughts and I don’t think they should have interfered. I think he just wanted to make a name for himself.”

Commenting on the judgement NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood said the ruling was an important step in the separation of state and religion.

Mr Porteous Wood said council meetings should be conducted in a manner that welcomed everyone, regardless of their faith and added: “The NSS is not seeking to deprive those who wish to pray the opportunity to do so; indeed, we fight to retain freedom of religion and belief.

“The judgement clearly states that religious freedoms are not hindered, as councillors who wish to do so are free to say prayers before council meetings.”