News outlets reported the decision in (R (1) National Secular Society (2) Bone) v Bideford Town Council (10 February 2012) as "Prayers before council meetings ruled unlawful" and "Christianity under attack ..." and in doing so may well have created very much the wrong impression of what the case decided. This posting explains what Mr Justice Ouseley actually decided.
The claimants challenged the council's practice of saying prayers as part of their business, prayers appeared as an agenda item and was minuted. It was argued that the practice, breached the prohibition on religious discrimination and the public sector duties contained within the Equality Act (in that it was unjustifiable indirect discrimination); was a breach of Mr Bone's human rights; and fell outside the powers of the council.
The council responded that no councillor was required to participate in prayers and the record of attendance at meetings was held after prayers. It also asserted that any interference with rights was minimal, in the circumstances justified, and that the council had the power to hold prayers.
It is important to note the narrow issue which was before the judge, "whether prayers can be said as part of the formal business transacted by the council at a meeting to which all councillors are summoned". The judge also observed that his decision would apply to religions other than Christianity.
The last paragraph of the judgment summarises simply and clearly what the judge held:
"The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a council is not lawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue. If it were lawful, the manner in which it is carried out in the circumstances of Bideford does not infringe either Mr Bone's human rights, nor does it unlawfully discriminate indirectly against him on grounds of his lack of religious belief."
The judge had observed earlier in the decision that saying prayers before the meeting, and not as part of the formal business of the meeting, would not be unlawful.
Therefore, public bodies wishing to hold (or continue to hold) prayers as part of their meetings would be advised to review the practice to ensure that doing so falls within their powers. Those wishing to hold (or continue to hold) prayers before their meetings, would be advised to ensure that the way they do so does not amount to discrimination.
To read more about the case click here.