Highlands & Islands

Highland Council challenged on prayers at meetings

Man's hands clasped together
Image caption Prayers are held at the start of Highland Council meetings

The National Secular Society has challenged Highland Council over its holding of prayers at its meetings.

The society was successful in taking a Devon town council to court over the practice and the ruling was seen as a test case in England and Wales.

Society executive director Keith Porteous said the ruling also applied to Scottish local authorities.

Highland councillor Ken MacLeod said the prayers reflected the wishes of the electorate.

Highland Council said a time of prayer and reflection was held "informally" before the formal business.

However, the National Secular Society said this time of prayer and reflection was still happening after meetings had officially started, so still formed part of it.

It added that it did not have an issue with prayers taking place before meetings began.

The society brought a legal action against Bideford Town Council after atheist councillor Clive Bone complained about prayers.

In February, 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.

Following the judgement, the UK government said it would activate a power it said would allow councils in England to hold prayers at meetings.

Communities secretary Eric Pickles said he was "effectively reversing" the High Court's ruling.

He said part of the Localism Act that aims to give councils greater powers and freedom would be brought in early.

The National Secular Society questioned the act's reach and said the move could be challenged in court.

Mr Porteous told BBC Alba that there was support for change at Highland Council.

He said: "I know quite a few people in the Highlands who are not religious.

"Actually, this is about the law and we have won this High Court ruling that it is not within council's powers to hold worship and to summon councillors to prayer."

Mr MacLeod, who often leads prayers at the start of Highland Council meetings, said it was right the practice continued.

He said:: "It, we believe, reflects the wish of our electorate and of the people of the Highlands.

"The people of the Highlands were once known as the people of the book, the book being the Bible, and we believe we should pay our respects to our maker when we pray to him."

The Free Church of Scotland said a potential ban on prayers at meetings was a further sign of "current hostility towards the Christian faith in public life".

A council spokesman said: "At Highland Council, the time for prayer and reflection is 'informal' in that it is said before the commencement of the 'formal' business.

"This allows anyone who does not wish to share the time for prayer and reflection to remain outwith the chamber and then come in when the business begins."

He said any councillor could lead a prayer.

Six have indicated a particular interest in doing so - Ken MacLeod, Willie Mackay, Alasdair Rhind, Roddy Balfour, Margaret Paterson and Hamish Wood, who is a Buddist.

More on this story

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites