Prayers at Council Meetings

Councillors must not pray

You have to feel sorry for Britain’s poor secular humanists, hounded on every side, their human rights threatened by church bells, crucifixes, burqas, Christmas cards, ‘Christmas’ holidays, ‘Easter’ holidays, bishops in parliament, religious observance in schools, and now, to crown them all, prayers at council meetings.

But at last, a glimmer of hope.  A recent High Court ruling in England has declared it illegal to begin council meetings with prayer.  The case was raised by a former councillor of atheist belief, with the support of the National Secular Society, and you can’t but admire the skill with which this tiny organisation has exploited the European Convention on Human Rights and the Gay Rights movement to nibble away at the religious foundations of British culture.

Now that they’ve achieved this stunning success in England, their sights are already well and truly set on Scotland.  Not that the policy endorsed by the High Court would be any novelty north of the Border.  When I chaired a Christian housing association many years ago, the then watch-dog (Scottish Homes, I think) demanded that we drop the practice of opening meetings with prayer.  When it became clear that this would mean mass resignations and an end to church funding, they backed off.  But it was an ominous straw in the wind.

It seems little short of astonishing that a learned judge, no matter how cautious, should consider prayers at council meetings illegal.  Granted, he acted on the narrow basis of the 1972 Local Government Act, but that Act does not ban prayers.  It merely omits to mention them.  It would be interesting to know whether councils always limit themselves to what is specifically required by the Act; and the judge himself, by granting leave to appeal, seems to have conceded that this was a very precarious foundation for such a far-reaching decision.   He would have been fully aware that the practice of beginning sessions with prayer still prevails in both Houses of Parliament.  Presumably, too, just as in theology there is a hierarchy of truths, so in law there must be a hierarchy of Acts of Parliament.  If so, an Act with the humble purpose of redrawing local government boundaries in England and Wales, cannot, surely, set aside the basic constitutional law of the United Kingdom, according to which the Queen-in-Parliament is solemnly sworn to uphold the Christian religion. By taking an Oath of loyalty to Her Majesty all MPs take on board the same obligation.

Recognition of the Almighty lies at the very foundation of the British system of government, and any administration which sets out to eliminate Him from public life will be guilty of collective perjury.  Britain may be, as humanists allege, the only country in the world where the constitution binds the state to recognise, support and protect religion; and that may be a bad thing.  But illegal it is not, and the only way it can be made illegal is by a root-and-branch revision of the constitution.  That was not, presumably, either the aim or the effect of the 1972 Local Government Act.

But is there a fissure in the British legal system?  There may well be: two fissures, in fact.  One is the fissure between local and national government, with the result that while parliament feels obligated to respect religion, local government does not.  If so, it’s time that those responsible for drafting Acts of parliament took a course on joined-up thinking to make sure that all levels of government operate under one constitution.

The other fissure is more serious : the fissure between the UK government and the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales.  Is the Scottish Parliament legally free of the religious responsibilities which fall upon Westminster?  Hardly!  Holyrood still has to operate within the ‘Treaty’ of Union of 1707, which laid down cast-iron safeguards for Scotland’s religion.

But one of the clear risks of breaking up the Union is that independence will immediately deliver a secular Scottish state.  It is hard to imagine Nationalists tearing up the Articles of Union and then reinstating their provisions for the preservation of religion.  The Accession Oath, with its commitment to maintaining Christianity, will , be repealed, and with that oath will go every safeguard against the demands of the National Secular Society.  There will be no prayers at council meetings, no religious observances in schools, no ‘Easter’ or ‘Christmas’ holidays, no public funding for Christian charities, and no chaplains for the new Scottish army.

Lurking within the High Court’s decision lies the curious idea that banning prayers is the neutral, default position.  This is a piece of nonsense.  Banning religion from the public square is no more neutral than imposing it by main force.  Besides, as Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) once pointed out, every human is faced with three, and only three, religious choices.  We can be polytheists, believing in many gods; or we can be monotheists, believing in only one; or we can be atheists, ostensibly believing in none, but in reality believing in the universe itself.  The world is its own Father Almighty, Maker of itself.

No one has a right to insist that atheism shall be the only religion permitted in the public square.  If the state is to be neutral on matters of religion, favouring none above the other, then there can be neither banning nor imposing.  Christians are not arguing for the right to impose prayers on council meetings.  They are arguing only for the right of councils to make up their own mind.  The National  Secular Society, by contrast, wants to deprive councils of this freedom.

Will the ban stop at councils?  Hardly, if the sight or sound of people praying is a breach of someone’s human rights.  The National Secular Society will not stop till atheism becomes the established religion of Britain, complete with its own acclaimed Defender of the Faith and protected by the full force of the law.

In the meantime, the law clearly thinks it owes Christianity nothing.  Come independence, it will owe us even less.

This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on 17 February 2012.