Friday, 10 February 2012

UK court ends prayer in town councils - but on technicality

A UK court issued an interesting ruling today – finding that it is not lawful for town councils to say prayers before meetings. What makes it an interesting case is that the UK, unlike the US, does not have a legal separation between church and state.

In fact England has an official state religion – the Church of England. So having local government say Anglican prayers before a government meeting might not seem so unusual. But an atheist counsellor in a town called Bideford in Southwest England decided to challenge his council’s practice of saying a prayer before meetings. The legal challenge, brought by the National Secular Society, said that prayers have no place in "a secular environment concerned with civic business".

Because the UK has no formal constitution, and no domestic legal guarantee of religious freedom, the NSS cited the European Convention on Human Rights - which protects an individual's right to “freedom of conscience” and protects against discrimination. The ECHR (transposed into British law through the 1998 Human Rights Act)  is often cited in British cases involving human rights because there is no British constitution to appeal to. This lack of a legal code for human rights often means that Britain is more subject to the non-binding verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights (which guarantees the convention) than other countries.

In this case, the UK court did not rule on the human rights aspects but instead found that the prayers are illegal because praying is not specifically on the list of competencies afforded to local authorities in the 1972 Local Government Act. The court gave no opinion on whether it breaches a person’s human rights to make them listen to a prayer in order to participate in government meetings. Instead, it simply said that local authorities can’t hold prayers because in the UK, a unitary state, local governments have an extremely narrow and proscribed list of things they are allowed to do. And praying isn’t one of them.

Of course there is no such proscriptive list of competencies for the national government, so according to the ruling it would still be completely feasible for the national parliament to hold prayers before sessions (and unless I’m mistaken, I believe the House of Lords does just that).

It’s estimated that the ruling could affect hundreds of town councils across the UK which currently hold prayers before meetings. Bideford town council will almost certainly appeal the ruling.

In the United States, the issue of saying prayers in government buildings is an extremely heated debate. Courts have routinely ruled that based on the separation of church and state interpreted from the constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom, prayers cannot be said in government buildings – including schools. It is one of the most salient issues for the religious right in America - up there with abortion and gay marriage.

In the UK there is no such controversy. Prayers are routinely said in government buildings, and this case is one of the first instances of anyone objecting to it. I suspect the reason for this is that the UK is now a largely secular society (62% of Brits are Atheists), and the recital of prayers from the state religion in government buildings seems more like an archaic rote exercise than a threatening undermining of rights.

The US, by contrast, is a much more religious society (Only 9% of Americans don’t believe in God and just 2% identify as Atheists). Because religion is so powerful in America, and also because there is a specific separation of church and state in US law, the issue tends to get very heated. Secular people see prayer in government buildings as a threatening attempt by the extremely religious to infuse religion into public life. In the UK, there is no threat of any such takeover.

Perhaps this is why today’s news has been greeted with more of a bemused shrug in the UK than any kind of grand celebration – even among those who identify as Atheists. While such court rulings in the United States tend to be cheered loudly by secular people and get major news coverage, this story has barely registered with the British media. An interesting point of comparison I think.

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