Bideford Town Council has apparently opened its meetings with prayer since the days of Queen Elizabeth I. In recent times, an atheist councillor, one Clive Bone, objected. The council twice voted on the matter, and agreed by a majority to continue to open in prayer. Mr Bone decided to be no longer a member of the council.
Along with the National Secular Society, he took the council to the High Court. They claimed that prayer was discriminatory against atheist councillors, that prayer was in breach of human rights laws and that the council had no lawful authority to hold prayers as part of its formal meetings.
Even Trevor Phillips, head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, called the case "nonsense on stilts."
The court decided that the council's opening in prayer was unlawful.
It held that the prayers were not discriminatory against atheist councillors, that the prayers were not in breach of human rights, but that "the saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a council is not lawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue."
One MP called the court's decision "utterly preposterous."
Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 says that "a local authority shall have power to do any thing (whether or not involving the expenditure, borrowing or lending of money or the acquisition or disposal of any property or rights) which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions."
Barrister Neil Addison writes: "As a lawyer I find the decision bizarre. . . By any rational analysis it seems wholly disproportionate to say that a local ceremony which has lasted for hundreds of years is unlawful merely because it is not specifically mentioned in legislation."
Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said: "We are a Christian country. Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. Public authorities should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish."
Yesterday the Christian Institute, who funded the council's defence at the High Court, reported that the Communities Secretary will introduce new legislation by the end of the week if possible, and if not by the end of the month, which will restore the right of councils to say prayers at official meetings if they wish.
So within two weeks we're going to be back where we were.
There are complaints of militant secularism taking over in Britain - but can it be that secularists have exceeded themselves this time? Can it be that reasonable people are fed up with secularists going to such lengths to stop a couple of minutes' prayer? Can it be that this time the secularists have shot themselves in the foot?