Prayers before council meetings
Like many local authorities, Babergh District Council has Christian prayers at the beginning of full council meetings. It’s assumed that all the members will participate. Together with humanists and secularists in other parts of the country, we regard this practice as archaic and discriminatory. We have no problem with prayers before meetings, provided they are optional. If they’re held 10 minutes before meetings start, say, and it’s made clear that members are under no obligation to attend, we feel that non-Christians or members of other faiths would feel much happier about getting involved with the democratic process.
Babergh council has previously rejected my suggestion that they should review their practice. I recently tried again, and this was the response from their Chief Executive, Mrs Pat Rockall:
Our Solicitor has looked at this for us, and concurs with the statement on the website by the spokesperson for the Equality and Human Rights Commission that Article 9 of the European Convention is about allowing people to exercise their religious freedom, not about stopping them expressing their religion. She is satisfied that saying prayers before Council meetings does not contravene that right, and does not consider there are any legal grounds for advising Members that prayers should not be said before Council meetings.
I have drawn the attention of our Political Leaders’ Group to your e-mail (as I did when you raised this with me the first time), together with that legal advice, and once again sought their steer to enable me to reply to you. Whilst they genuinely respect your views on this matter, I have been asked to advise you that we will continue with the practice of saying a prayer at the beginning of Council Meetings.
Our committee has discussed your response, and we’ve heard what’s happening in other parts of the country. We can’t accept your position.
My point was not that prayers shouldn’t be said, but that they should be optional. In other words, there should be no assumption that members and staff are willing to participate.
By having prayers 10 minutes or so before meetings begin, you can be sure that those who do participate are happy to do so. It may be that all the current members and staff would freely participate if you changed your practice, but that doesn’t alter the principle.
Advice from the National Association of Local Councils has been obtained by colleagues elsewhere, and the advice is that prayers are discriminatory and that Councils that continue with them may be open to legal challenge. It’s likely that, in order to clarify the situation, a complaint will be made against one of the councils who persist with this practice. We believe that The British Humanist Association has said it will support such action, and if the legal position is clarified in favour of prayers being defined as discriminatory then they will help to mount a national campaign.
Babergh is populated mainly by ethnically white British people, many of whom may describe themselves as “Christian” (though, with the BHA and the NSS, we’re campaigning for the 2011 census questions to be altered, to clarify this). We believe that many self-styled “Christians” are only nominally so. We’d argue that old-fashioned practices like Christian prayers before meetings, where it’s assumed that everyone will participate, may discourage some members of the community from getting involved with the democratic process, including those from the minority faiths.
We’ll be mounting a local campaign to encourage Suffolk local authorities who still have prayers before meetings without offering the option to avoid them, to think again.
Any information about your Suffolk local authority’s practice regarding prayers would be welcome. Please email us.