Mr Clive Bone, a Bideford town councillor who has no religious beliefs, complained to the High Court that the Council’s ancient practice of holding Christian prayers at the beginning of Town Council meetings was unlawful.
In R (on the application of National Secular Society) v Bideford Town Council  EWHC 175, Mr Justice Ouseley decided that he was right.
This was not because the prayers infringed Mr Bone’s human rights under Articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights. He was free to stay or go during prayers without penalty. Nor was there any indirect religious discrimination under Section 45 of the Equality Act 2006 (now Section 149 Equality Act 2010). ‘The fact that someone may be hostile to a practice does not mean its observance puts him at a disadvantage’ (paragraph 53).
The judge decided that prayers were unlawful because the Council, as a creature of statute, needed statutory authority to permit the practice of prayers. The only relevant provision, Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, allows local authorities ‘to do any thing which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions.’
The High Court decided that, whilst the majority of Bideford councillors thought that prayers were conducive to their work, the test was objective. Needless to say, the Council was unable to produce any empirical evidence that prayers facilitated the discharge of its functions.
The judge was wrong, in my opinion, on two counts. First, common sense suggests that even statutory bodies have an inherent right to control their own procedures, just as courts do. Councils do not need a specific statutory power to spend two minutes in prayer at the beginning of meetings, just as they do not need statutory authority to spend, as Mr Bone suggested, a few minutes in silence.Secondly, Section 111 is surely wide enough to encompass prayers, as Mr Francis Bennion argues in a letter yesterday to The Times. When I was a junior lawyer with Nottinghamshire County Council, we looked to Section 111 to encompass not only (then novel) payments to professional foster parents, but the rescue of a local company, Beeston Boiler, and Olympic sponsorship for Torvill and Dean. Local authorities are all about local initiative.
I look forward to an appeal.