Bideford council prayer case prompts delight and dismay

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Media captionClive Bone: "Religious freedom is an absolute right and so is freedom from religion"

A High Court ruling that a Devon town council acted unlawfully by allowing prayers to be said at meetings has sparked a mixed reaction.

The action was brought against Bideford Town Council by the National Secular Society (NSS) after atheist councillor Clive Bone complained.

Mr Justice Ouseley ruled the prayers were not lawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972.

However, he said prayers could be said as long as councillors were not formally summoned to attend.

The reaction from councillors around the country has ranged from delight to disappointment.

Mr Bone said people were deterred from becoming councillors when they heard that meetings would start with prayers.

"Councils are for everyone... they're not private clubs, they're public bodies and they should be neutral in that regard."

'A great pity'

But Anthony Inch, a Bideford town councillor and Torridge district councillor, said he hoped there would be an appeal leading to the ruling being overturned.

"This isn't just about Christian prayers it's about all prayers," he said.

"We can have prayers before the council meeting starts which I think will be a good thing and something I will be pressing for."

The Bishop of Exeter, the Right Reverend Michael Langrish, said he would encourage councils in his area to continue holding prayers before the start of their statutory business.

He added: "I think it's a great pity that a tiny minority are seeking to ban the majority, many of whom find prayers very, very helpful, from continuing with a process in which no-one actually has to participate."

Imran Khan, a Conservative councillor on Reigate and Banstead Borough Council, welcomed the ruling.

Mr Khan is a Muslim but said he was not particularly religious.

Image caption Bideford Town Council has been given permission to appeal against the ruling

"Religion has no place in politics. The High Court judgement is a victory for everyone who believes that democracy and religious freedom is the cornerstone of Western free society.

"The judgement clearly states that councillors are welcome to pray before meetings, thus respecting religious values.

"Under the old regime I had to wait outside the room while everyone else was praying. This meant that it appeared I was being late or just plain rude to other people's religions as I walked across the floor afterwards," he added.

'Hoped sense would prevail'

The judge acknowledged the case raised issues of general public importance and gave the council permission to appeal.

"I would like to see it appealed, I think there will be uproar throughout the country and I think it will be overturned," Mr Inch said.

Trevor Johns, the mayor of Bideford said he felt shocked that someone had found it "so offensive" to sit through the prayers.

"I am very disappointed, I had hoped good sense would prevail, he added.

The legal challenge was launched in 2010 after the NSS was contacted by Mr Bone, who was a Bideford town councillor at the time.

The society welcomed the verdict, with executive director Keith Porteous Wood saying prayers had been "the cause of tension in a number of local councils".

He said: "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."

And Mr Bone, who ended up leaving the council because of its "refusal to adjust" its prayers policy, said: "Quite frankly delighted. I'm not surprised, I expected to win."

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