The recent court decision to outlaw prayers from the start of all local authorities has caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth. (corrected following comment; thanks.)
As an ex-councillor, an atheist and someone who believed in the move towards a secular state I ought to be celebrating, but I’m left with mixed feelings. This is mainly as the poor reporting and explanation has left people upset, and this damages all people in public life who would like to advance secularism.
The prayers provide a moment of reflection before the main business of the meeting. Even as an atheist I quite enjoyed a couple of the chaplains, fiund a third moderately interesting, but found one sanctimonious. They often (but not always) focused the mind and created a reflective and positive atmosphere. However this reflective mood didn’t last long, and prayers can have negative impacts.
Many people are shocked to learn Councils ever had prayers.
Before deciding on your view of the matter I would urge you to consider the following:
- Councillors are summoned to attend meetings. They, in legal theory, have no right to miss the meeting or part thereof. Thus if part of the meeting is offensive some people are put off standing. Consider whether you’d be happy attending a lecture by Richard Dawkins in enforced respectful silence before you serve the people who elected you!
- on that point be aware the legal ruling says prayers can continue provided they aren’t part of the legal summons.
- prayers don’t have to be Christian. Not even in broadest sense: I have see a year of Buddhist prayers. The prayers don’t need to reflect the Christian culture of the UK.
- Different authorities have different approaches already. I am told a neighbouring authority has a moment of reflection (or private prayer) at the start. It isn’t clear what the legal status of that would be now.
- Procedure matters: at my authority we had a laid back approach to people coming and going. Some authorities only allow councillors to vote if they have attended the entire meeting since the last break: attending prayers could be a means of exclusion of a democratically elected member.
- This isn’t just about atheists: a Muslim member might feel unable to attend Christian prayers (and I have spoken to one such councillor, and another who happily attends prayers). There is also a possible political side: Consider whether you’d be happy with a Wee Free chaplain if you were a Catholic councillor or vice versa.
None of this bothers Eric Pickles, the representative of the Daily Mail in government. His success (or not) in defending the right of people to create land fill having passed he has decided to foam at the mouth and present new law. I hope that LibDems in government delay this to allow reasonable reflection.
Perhaps we could ask Mr Pickles for a moment of silent contemplation before he speaks in public?