Eric Pickles, Minister of State for Communities and Local Government, has issued a number of documents on his ministry’s website explaining the freedom to pray and his reversal of the High Court ruling banning prayer at council meetings. In his letter to faith leaders he writes:
‘Our multifaith nation, which has brought many benefits, is not strengthened by the secularisation of civil life. I hope this action sends an important signal about how this Government values and will champion the continuing role of religion in public life.’
‘I believe religion continues to play an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. We respect those with faith, and those with none. The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty, and the fight for religious freedom in British history is deeply entwined with political freedom.’
‘On 10 February, the High Court issued a ruling in a case brought against Bideford Town Council, banning the practice of prayers at the formal beginning of council meetings. The basis of this ruling was a narrow interpretation of Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972.
In short, it asserted that councils do not have an explicit power to hold prayers as part of the formal business at council meetings.I do not believe it was ever the intention of Parliament when it passed that Act forty years ago to prohibit council prayers, which are a common day practice that dates back many centuries. This high profile case has generated a public debate about the marginalisation of faith and illiberal and intolerant secularism.
In his letter to Local Authority leaders he writes:
The tradition of council prayers dates back hundreds of years. And as a former councillor, I understand the importance it plays in the rhythm of formal council meetings and civic occasions.We welcome and respect fellow residents and British citizens who belong to other faiths or none. However, the right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty. I believe Christianity continues to play an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. Either way, the choice on holding prayers is now yours again.I am confident you will make good use of your new powers.’
In his advice to parish council, that bizarrely remain unable to hold prayers during meetings due to be excluded from the Localism Act Eric Pickles writes:
In the meantime, there was nothing in the High Court judgment that suggests that prayers or a time for reflection cannot be held before the formal start of a meeting of any parish council. Indeed, parish councils may even want to consider holding informal prayers at the time when the meeting would have normally started, and simply move back the formal commencement of the meeting by five minutes.
Ministers are currently considering what further steps may be taken to allow those parish councils, who chose not to qualify for the general power competence, to hold prayers during their formal meeting.
Protect the Pope comment: The intemperance and intolerance of Clive Bones, the former atheist council member of Bideford, has backfired spectacularly by forcing the government to publicly defend the religious freedom of UK citizens.
Who would have thought that in 2012 the UK government would act so resolutely to defend the freedom to pray? Well done Conservative MP Eric Pickles.