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DAC Beachcroft has convinced the High Court that to hold prayers before council meetings is unlawful under the Local Government Act (1972).
The National Secular Society instructed partner Stephen Hocking to challenge Bideford Town Council in Devon over whether it could hold prayers as part of the normal course of the meeting.
Matrix Chambers’ David Wolfe was drafted in to go head-to-head with 3 Hare Court’s James Dingemans QC, who was instructed by Aughton Ainsworth Solicitors solicitor Tom Ellis for the town council.
In his ruling Mr Justice Ouseley said the authority had over-reached its powers because it had insisted that the prayers were part of the formal meeting. Had councillors not been formally summoned to attend the meeting the prayers would not have been technically unlawful.
The claim was launched after atheist councillor Clive Bone was elected to the council in 2007. He made attempts to stop the prayers through motions at the council but lost the vote.
Bone launched a legal challenge with the support of the Secular Society, contending that organised prayers breached the prohibition on religious discrimination in the Equality Act 2006 and the replacement “public sector equality duty” in the Equality Act 2010. The council, it was claimed, discriminated indirectly against persons, such as the claimant, who had no religious beliefs, and it was not justifiable under those acts.
According to the judgment, “the issue is solely about whether prayers can be said as a part of the formal business transacted by the council at a meeting to which all councillors are summoned.
“It is quite wrong for the defendant to suggest that the claimants would be introducing a bar on acts of worship before the meeting, thus hindering the exercise by councillors who wished to pray of their right to do so.”
The prayers were intended to take place as part of the “formal business of the council”.
The judge concluded: “The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a council is not lawful under s111 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 the practice 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 the grounds of his lack of religious belief.”