A ban on orchestrated public praying is good for believers in intolerance
WHY do people pray in public? Is it to communicate with God or with the rest of humanity? Orchestrated public praying is a bit odd, isn’t it? We ask in light of a High Court judge Mr Justice Ouseley’s ruling in favour of a case brought by the National Secular Society (NSS) and a former councillor. They complained that orchestrated acts of prayer in the chambers of town and city halls were not on. The judge agreed. He said:
“I do not think the 1972 Act… should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of councillors, however sincere or large in number, to exclude, or even to a modest extent, to impose burdens on or even to mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression of them. They are all equally elected councillors.”
This means no council in England or Wales will be free to hold prayers as part of its formal proceedings because prayer is deemed ‘not useful’ to its work.
Clive Bone was the trigger for this bansturbation. Bone, a non-believer, was a Bideford town councillor in Devon. He left because of the council’s “refusal to adjust” its prayer policy. He put his case:
“I wouldn’t have had a problem if it was like when people say grace at a meal, but they had a vicar or a minister in who gave a minisermon and chanted prayers. You could tell that people were cringing.”
Cranmer explains the case:
The NSS argued that council members who were not religious were being “indirectly discriminated against”. Only – Mr Bone is no longer a council member.The NSS are relying on the argument that praying goes against Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of thought and religion, as well as Article 14, which prohibits discrimination. Prayer, they argue, makes the non-believer uncomfortable; and prayer to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ prevents those of other faiths a full and equal participation.
Should the NSS succeed, the abolition will follow of prayers before the Commons and Lords begin their proceedings. This would represent a further diminution of the status of the Church of England, and constitute another attack upon the Christian foundations of the nation.
The Prayer Book of the Church of England is, of course, subject to statutory regulation. But ad hoc prayers before the business of government may be conducted are not. His Grace is of the opinion that this spurious legal challenge will be thrown out because (a) it is manifestly silly to suggest that town hall prayers intimidate or discriminate against someone; and (b) whatever one thinks of the Human Rights Act/ECHR, it cuts both ways – Article 9 provides for freedom of religion ‘in worship, teaching, practice and observance’, ‘in community with others and in public or private’, and says that any restriction on this freedom should by necessary for public safety, public order, health or morals, or the protection of other’s freedoms.
The Human rights angle was tossed out. Mr Justice Ouseley said formal prayers at council meetings were unlawful because of a technicality in the Local Government Act 1972.
Keith Porteous Wood, a spokesman for the society, is happy:
“England and Wales are the only countries in the world to have [prayers at Parliament], presumably because the UK is the only country in the world to give clerics, 26 bishops, the right to sit in its legislature. Strange how Britain still is alone in thinking it is appropriate to enforce this by law. We will not give up on this…Acts of worship in council meetings are key to the separation of religion from politics, so we are very pleased with the judgment, and the clear secular message it sends. We believe council meetings should be conducted in a manner equally welcoming to all councillors, regardless of their religious beliefs, or indeed lack of belief.”
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey of Clifton, is unhappy:
“I am horrified by this. It does look as though the Christian voice is being silenced and I am very worried by the dangers of a creeping secularism. The marginalisation of Christianity is hollowing out our value system and our culture and this worries me more than anything else.”
Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, is also unhappy:
“We welcome the finding that the saying of prayers isn’t discriminatory, or a breach of equality laws, or human rights laws. But it is extraordinary to rule that councils have no lawful authority to choose, if they so wish, to start their formal meetings with prayers. That is simply wrong.”
Bill Cash MP is unhappy:
“This is stretching credulity to breaking point. This ruling is overturning decades of how provisions in the Local Government Act have been interpreted. The European Convention on Human Rights is being turned into the European Convention against Human Rights. Is it being seriously suggested that if would be unlawful if people, if Parliament, wishes to convene for prayers?”
Speaking for the council, James Dingemans QC pointed out that both local democracy in Bideford and Parliament itself had determined that such prayers may and ought to continue. It would appear that the overarching philosophy of secular-humanist-rights negates democracy. But we already knew that. While this case was not won on the basis of human rights infringement, it is interesting that the NSS is unhelpfully conflating it with the judgement of Lord Justice Laws in the case of McFarlane v Relate Avon Ltd (2010), which determined: ‘The precepts of any one religion, and belief system, cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of another. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic.’
Mr Dingemans had warned of ‘far-reaching consequences’ if the NSS were to succeed. As His Grace wrote some months ago, prayers in Parliament may cease, the Coronation Oath may be endangered, as would a council’s involvement on Remembrance Sunday and possibly even chaplains serving in HM Armed Forces. Under the guise of ‘neutrality’, secularism would become the inviolable and immutable state orthodoxy in the civic space. This would represent a further diminution of the status of the Church of England, and constitute another attack upon the Christian foundations of the nation. NSS Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood is already propagating the ‘neutral’ lie. He says: “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.”
The fact that the Judge has not upheld the complaint on human rights grounds may reprieve parliamentary prayers, the Coronation Oath, Army chaplains and participation in remembrance services. But His Grace is struck by Mr Justice Ouseley’s reasoning that council prayers are unlawful because there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue. Have we exchanged an ancient system of law and jurisprudence which was based on statutory prohibition for one which relies on express permission?
Banning things smacks of insecurity and ignorance. It’s all a bit pathetic, isn’t it…