Bideford town council likes to pray before meetings. The local authority, situated in Devonshire south-west England, and has twice voted to keep the practice of beginning meetings with prayers, something which Clive Bone has objected to; the atheist councillor is attempting to have the practice stopped by the courts, through the National Secular Society (NSS), claiming it is “not appropriate in modern Britain.”
The NSS is seeking a judicial review of the council’s practice, claiming it is a violation of existing human rights legislation, principally articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which upholds the right to freedom of though, conscience and religion for non-believers. Mayor Andrew Powell has dismissed proceedings as an overreaction.
Lawyers are claiming non-believers are being discriminated against unjustly. Bone claims he was “disadvantaged and embarrassed” by the prayer sessions, the second part of which is a personal matter, although one which can no doubt be empathised with by a great many people, the first, something of an odd claim, unless he is suggesting a kind of Christian-masonic arrangement whereby all dissenters suddenly, inexplicably find themselves missing out seemingly reachable goals at the expense of their lesser, praying colleagues. Thankfully, no such conspiratorial claims have been made so far.
Britain, despite its current rposition as chair of the Council of Europe, is not too enamoured with the European Convention on human Rights, or indeed any human rights law that comes from Brussels (sic). Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as Foreign Minister William Hague, has suggested clawing back some rights insisted upon by the Strasbourg court, and withdrawing from the convention in preparation for the drafting of a home-grown bill of rights, one that will enshrine all those fusty old concepts of individual liberty, one that warms the cockles of British hearts.
Freedom to religious worship is a fundamental right, of course, but, as the NSS are asking, is it one that should be separate from public life? Their argument is not about the rights and wrongs of religious worship, but about its place in the legislative chamber. The NSS is claiming many councils across the country include prayers as part of the structure of their formal meetings; if this is correct, it is a worrying trend for secularists.
By removing religion for the structure of public life, law-making is salvaged from interpretations other than those of precedence or jurisprudence and the like. It is law based on legal reasoning, not to the utmost example, the literal reading of a religious text. Outright theocracy might make an unlikely system in modern Europe, but it is still feared as much as any other kind of autocracy.
Will the current UK government get to formalise its cherished bill of rights? If so, will it make the bold decision to tolerate no religious ceremony in public life? With the monarch (it can be safely assumed that institution will not be jettisoned any time soon) also serving as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, it may not prove to be exactly the case. But time must surely be up for the kind of antiquated practice that Bideford council seem to want to continue. If that bill of rights is to ever emerge, that should be among the first things to go. It will not abolish or diminish religious life, but allow law makers of all creeds and beliefs, to engage in their duty as it should be practised, with unburdened clarity.