Quick off the blocks were the National Secular Society who had championed the cause of ex councillor Clive Bone in his case against Bideford Council. Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood claimed a great victory for secularism:
This judgment is an important victory for everyone who wants a secular society, one that neither advantages nor disadvantages people because of their religion or lack of it. This is particularly important for activities which are part of public life, such as council meetings.
There is no longer a respectable argument that Britain is a solely Christian nation or even a religious one. An increasing proportion of people are not practising any religion and minority faiths are growing in number and influence. This underlines the need for shared civic spaces to be secular and available to all, believers and non-believers alike, on an equal basis.In fact the NSS hit the track so fast that one wonders whether they had made a false start. Certainly more considered reflection on the judgement tends to suggest that their perceived victory may not turn out to be all they have led themselves to believe.
Heresy Corner summarised the grounds for the ruling succinctly and he observed that the NSS had failed to win its case on the basis of the European Convention on Human Rights:
Mr Justice Ouseley rejected the main part of the NSS case, that incorporating prayers into its order of business the council was unlawfully discriminating against Councillor Bone and abusing his human rights…
The decision to "ban" prayers was a narrow one, resting on what many would consider a point of pedantry: whether the prayers could be tabled as part of the formal agenda, in which case they had to be integral to the council's business, or whether they had to take place informally before the meeting was called to order. The case turned on the interpretation s.111 of the 1972 Local Government Act, which by coincidence has today been superseded by the Localism Act.The piece went on to comment that the NSS’s intentions had been frustrated:
What the NSS plainly wanted was a declaration that council prayers violated the human rights of non-believing councillors. That would have provided them with ammunition to continue their battle against other manifestations of public religiosity. By confining his decision to a narrow point of statutory construction the judge denied them anything more than a symbolic victory.The Heresiarch developed the point that the Act on which the judgement was based has already been superseded:
The second reason why today's decision may not mean anything is that (as I mentioned above) the Local Government Act has now been superseded by the Localism Act. Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, today criticised what he thought was the decision (it was an instant reaction) on the grounds that "we are a Christian country" and that "the right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty." But he also mentioned that under the new legislation councils have "a general power of competence - which allows them to undertake any general action that an individual could do unless it is specifically prohibited by law. Logically, this includes prayers before meetings."Jonathan Chaplin writing in The Guardian has also pointed out that the implications of the High Court ruling may not have been as the NSS would have liked.
The quality of comfort that the National Secular Society (NSS) can take from the ruling that Bideford council prayers are unlawful can perhaps be summed up in Alan Hansen's familiar comment about top Premier League football clubs going through a rough patch: "It's important to get a result even when you're not playing well." NSS certainly takes home a point, but their lead arguments – that such prayers, lasting about three minutes and allowing an opt-out, are so imposing upon nonbelievers as to violate their human rights – didn't make it past the halfway line at this particular meeting. Mr Justice Ouseley concluded that the mere fact that non-religious councillors like Clive Bone might feel "uncomfortable" during council prayers did not constitute a discriminatory disadvantage serious enough to warrant the protective intervention of the state. When a senior judge acknowledges that mere temporary subjective discomfort in the presence of religious or other beliefs or practices we happen to dislike isn't enough to justify the blunt instrument of legal proscription, religious freedom is strengthened.However, Chaplin also posted a warning for Christians anxious to retain the place of religious practice in formal civic process.
But Christians who have backed Bideford council on this occasion would be well advised to get to work now preparing their counter-arguments for the time when a local authority in an area like Tower Hamlets makes what might then be an entirely lawful majority decision to open its meetings with readings from the Qur'an – from which, of course, Christians would be accorded an opt-out. Christians who have hastily leapt to the defence of Christian Britain and denounced the ruling as yet further evidence of the marginalisation of Christianity from the public realm should perhaps be careful what they wish for.I can’t help feeling that in all the fuss over this ruling and other cases perceived to be hostile to Christianity we are missing something very important. A few weeks ago I was involved in a diocesan conference for about 1,000 people focusing on our vision Transforming Presence. Overall it was an excellent day and you can read a summary of the outcome here. However, early on in the discussions on my table of 10 people we quickly became side tracked. One person commented about the way Political Correctness was preventing Christians witnessing effectively and before I knew what was happening several people had launched into perceived PC anti Christian anecdotes drawn from local situations and well known stories in the national press.
After a while I asked the group to tell me why it was that we had been so ineffective in sharing the gospel before these ‘PC’ rulings took place. I don’t remember us doing such a great job of witnessing before British Airways staff were told not to wear crosses or B&B owners were told they couldn’t discriminate against homosexuals. Quite the contrary; during a period of time that, according to my table mates, was perceived to be much more favourable to the Christian faith we quite spectacularly failed to see lots of people come to faith in Jesus Christ and the church grow.
The reason why we are where we are in the church is not because we can’t have prayers on the agenda at a civic council meeting. The sooner we grasp that fact then the sooner we can turn our attention back to the task that we have been given as Jesus Christ’s followers; to share his Good News by word and deed with a society that desperately needs it.