As is the practice in a number of Councils, Bideford Town Council put a prayer at the start of the agenda for its Meetings. A Christian minister of some sort was invited along to lead the prayer, and the councillors were expected to go along with it. Until one refused.
The Guardian editorial tells the story of what happened next:
In court on Friday, Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that the saying of prayers during Bideford council meetings was unlawful. Though the judge was at pains to stress the narrowness of the legal point on which he ruled, the case was being widely watched. The communities secretary Eric Pickles was quick to condemn the judgment. Diametrically opposed responses from the National Secular Society, which supported Mr Bone's complaint, and the Christian Institute, which underwrote Bideford's costs, were nevertheless both agreed that something of more general importance was at stake.
Thank God Eric Pickles was on hand to give his well-informed opinion!
The judgement is here if you're interested. Actually, despite my lawyerly ways, I think the legal arguments are far less interesting than the arguments of principle. To recap, Christian prayers were a formal part of the meetings in which important public business is decided. Councillors uncomfortable with those prayers either had to stay silent and pretend to go along with them or leave the chamber. Honestly, I don't think you have to be a militant secularist to see what's wrong with this scenario.
Giles Fraser, a minister for whom I have a lot of respect, basically admits this in his Comment, "Banning council prayer sessions is just the start – what about parliament?" Giles suggests that it might not be such a bad thing if this was the start of a movement towards full disestablishment. We can but hope.
Of course, we couldn't have commentary on something involving the National Secular Society without someone bashing them, despite the fact that they're manifestly in the right on this one. "Why the Bideford ruling on council prayers is a setback for secularism" by Jonathan Chaplin admits that the prayers should probably go:
Dare we hope that, in the aftermath of the ruling, councils will quietly and sensibly opt to leave prayers off their official agendas and allow them to be held prior to council meetings on an entirely voluntary basis? That would seem an obvious instance of the "reasonable accommodation" called for in a religiously plural society, and there is no loss of religious freedom involved. It's hard to see how this would amount to any kind of defeat for authentic Christianity: aren't the sincere but unofficial prayers of genuine believers of greater worth than the official ones of the religiously indifferent or reluctant?
But at the same time he takes delight in crowing about the fact that the NSS didn't succeed in showing that the prayers amounted to discrimination:
NSS certainly takes home a point, but their lead arguments – that such prayers, lasting about three minutes and allowing an opt-out, are so imposing upon nonbelievers as to violate their human rights – didn't make it past the halfway line at this particular meeting. Mr Justice Ouseley concluded that the mere fact that non-religious councillors like Clive Bone might feel "uncomfortable" during council prayers did not constitute a discriminatory disadvantage serious enough to warrant the protective intervention of the state...
The ruling is not an "important victory" for secularism, as NSS's Keith Porteous Wood crowed, but actually a long overdue setback in their ongoing campaign to manipulate the legitimate principle of non-discrimination so as to bring religion to heel.
If I may, I'd like to make a few points here:
1. The NSS won. That means that councils across the country are likely to start looking again at their practices. That sounds like a pretty heavy victory to me.
2. Apparently being able to leave during the prayers prevents them from being sufficiently detrimental to amount to discrimination, even if leaving is quite naturally embarrassing. Does Jonathan support this principle? So if instead of prayers, atheists were invited to speak against religion at the start of council meetings, would he feel that the ability to leave the room stopped it being discriminatory? Pillock.
3. He also comes out with this gem:
When a senior judge acknowledges that mere temporary subjective discomfort in the presence of religious or other beliefs or practices we happen to dislike isn't enough to justify the blunt instrument of legal proscription, religious freedom is strengthened.
The religious freedom of the majority, yes. Which, of course, is the only important kind. Bear in mind that this is a public body performing a public function.
Ah well. Not all Christians can be expected to see the crumbling of their age-old special privileges as a good thing. Onward Christian Soldiers! And let the rest of us get on with our jobs.