Bideford Council decides not to resume prayers
A town council has decided not to reinstate their prayer meetings due to concerns that new Government powers to protect the practice are not strong enough.
Bideford Town Council was forced to stop its long standing prayer meetings at the start of official business after a High Court ruled that there was “no statutory power” to allow the tradition.
The case was originally brought against Bideford Council by the National Secular Society, after councillor and atheist Clive Bone complained about the prayers.
The High Court ruling caused a huge outcry and led to Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, intervening to try to secure the right of Council members to start their meetings with prayer.
Mr Pickles quickened the introduction of a “general power of competence” under the Localism Act, giving Councils the authority to engage in any act which is lawful for an individual, including the holding of public prayers.
He subsequently claimed that: “Bideford Town Council will be able to hold prayers once more at the start of Council business”.
Yet the Mayor of Bideford, Trevor Johns, has announced that Bideford Council will not be resuming the prayers.
He claims that the Government’s intervention does not go far enough and leaves the legality of Council prayers in a grey area.
“It’s ambiguous at the moment”, said Mr Johns. “It worries me. The judiciary are supposed to be the highest law in the land, above Government. How Eric Pickles, out of the goodness of his heart, can overturn the judiciary, I have my doubts.”
Experts appear divided over the legal situation.
The National Association of Local Councils is arguing that authorities have little choice but to obey the High Court ruling. Other legal experts also fear that Mr Pickles’s actions will make no difference.
Yet the Local Government Association is confident that the court ruling has been overturned. A spokeswoman told the Guardian:
"In line with the Government, we believe the ruling is overturned by the general power of competence. It is still the decision of local authorities if they wish to hold prayers as part of full meetings."