High Court (Partially) Answers Secularists’ Prayers

Congratulations to Clive Bone and the National Secular Society for their successful judicial review challenging council prayers. This has triggered the inevitable backlash predicted by the NSS president, Terry Sanderson. Here I reproduce, and respond to, a piece in The Telegraph by Ed West, point by point.

Mr. West’s wording is indented (I said indented, not demented).

“Congratulations to Clive Bone, who must have earned his place in the hall of martyrs with his brave stance against religious tyranny. Bideford Council had viciously oppressed this brave opponent of the ayatollahs of Devon, apparently, by holding prayers before meetings.”

I detect a hint of the lowest form of wit here, Mr. West. I happen to think Mr. Bone has taken a very brave stance, actually. He has taken on the establishment (and the established religion) by successfully challenging an outdated and unlawful activity. I think that required a good dose of moral courage, and I admire him for it.

Bideford Town Council was not holding prayers before meetings. The prayers were part of the meetings. Mr. Bone had proposed a compromise whereby prayers could be said before meetings, on council premises, but this was rejected by the council. He had also proposed a period of silence at the beginning of the formal meeting where the religious could pray and the non-religious could gather their thoughts in the manner they wanted. Guess what? That was also rejected.

A few prayers in a council chamber – asking God for His (for it is always His, not Its or Hers) divine guidance on, perhaps, bin collections and the implications of police budget cuts – might be more Ayatollah Comedy than Ayatollah Khomeini, but putting religion firmly in its place by using nothing other than calm debate and democratic machinery is a democratic right (and, I would say, a democratic duty) which needs to be exercised to ensure we do not (again) endure theocracy in this country. As Richard Lederer said, “There once was a time when all people believed in God and the church ruled. This time was called the Dark Ages.”

“After the council had twice voted to retain the prayers Bone went to the courts, with the help of the National Secular Society, arguing that council members who were not religious were being ‘indirectly discriminated against’, in breach of human rights laws.”

Mr. Bone and the National Secular Society are entitled to use the courts to challenge the way a local council, or any organ of the state, exercises its power. We even have a phrase for this: it’s the “Rule of Law”, I believe. That the council voted to have prayers is irrelevant, as much as this might appeal to your small-minded understanding of what democracy is, Mr. West. As Mr. Justice Ouseley said in his judgment (at the end of paragraph 22), “The Council has on two occasions by a majority voted to retain public prayers at its full meetings. But that does not give it power to do what it has no power to do.”

As I mentioned here, why don’t men in a business meeting take a vote that attractive women remain topless during the meeting? Maybe Eric ‘Extra Onion Rings’ Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities the Christian Community would celebrate that as local democracy in action.

“He won, although as the Telegraph reports, it was not on human rights grounds, but on a ‘point of statutory construction of local government legislation’.”

Correct, Mr. West: the victory was not on human rights grounds. Your use of the word “but” suggests the statutory point is a trivial one, though. The court established that the council was acting beyond its powers. That’s not trivial in my book, assuming – like me – you find living in a democracy a generally pleasurable experience and at the very least far more pleasurable than the alternatives. (Theocracy, for example.)

“That’s because, although attending prayers was optional, in the judge’s words, prayers turned a council meeting ‘into a partial gathering of those councillors who share a particular religious outlook, or are indifferent to it or – as in the case of Mr Bone – too embarrassed to leave in public’.”

Yes, in theory it was optional: there was no suggestion that Mr. Bone was physically prevented from leaving the council chamber, or that he was physically compelled to pray. God, of course, is supposedly merciful and so apparently is Bideford Town Council. Give religion more power and who knows what might happen, though, given religion’s track record of successfully getting people to do that which they really don’t want to do? Why should Mr. Bone – as an elected public official – have been put in the embarrassing position of leaving a council meeting in view of the public who had elected him to represent them?

“So by holding prayers, even outside of an official meeting, the council had still called a ‘partial gathering’ of councillors of a certain religious persuasion, which supposedly entails discrimination.”

Again, it was part of the meeting, Mr. West. The council refused to hold the prayers before the meeting. If they had, this matter would not have been litigated.

“The Bishop of Exeter criticised the decision on the grounds that 70 per cent of people still call themselves Christian, but it could equally be said that most people are indifferent both to religious enthusiasm and to political atheism.”

I couldn’t give a flying rosary bead how many people call themselves Christian, or even atheist. Again, that is a small-minded understanding not only of democracy but also of the need to balance freedom of religion with freedom from religion. Saying that 70 per cent of people in this country are Christians, even if this is statistically accurate, is as relevant to an analysis of a council’s business and the powers at its disposal as arguing, for example, that 95% per cent of this country is racially white.

The only way to weave a path through the “religious enthusiasm” and “political atheism” of which you speak is secularism. This judgment doesn’t just protect the atheist. It also protects the Jew, the Muslim, the Sikh, the Mormon, the Scientologist and the Christian. Yes, that’s right; I did say “the Christian”.

Do you think all Christians agree with each other, on matters of faith or generally? Of course they don’t. Just consider the number of denominations, sub-denominations and sub-sub-denominations that exist within Christianity or any other religion (and on this specific point of religious difference I can do no better than refer you to Emo Philips’s timeless joke).

Do you think all Christians want to pray at work? Or that they want to be forced to pray at work, rather than at a time and place of their own choosing? And do you suppose that all Christians would have the same interpretation of Christian scripture and that the enforced period of prayer on company time might not bring their theological differences into the workplace, when they have plenty of opportunity to try and resolve these tedious (and irresolvable) differences elsewhere – and in their own time and to their hearts’ content? Do you think all Christians wish to force their (Christian or non-Christian) colleagues to pray at work?

What would Jesus say about forcing someone to pray when they don’t want to? (Actually, I don’t care what Jesus has to say on the workings of a local council in the south west of England approximately 2,000 years after his demise. That’s because I generally don’t care much for the opinions of anyone who is his own father).

“That is what makes the entire case not just a waste of money but also strangely foreign. Prayers have been a part of government meetings for centuries, and are still held in Parliament (the NSS’s next target). They are a part of tradition and essentially harmless. And despite this case being centred around someone “too embarrassed” to leave prayers, there’s something very un-English about the National Secular Society and the campaign against prayers, intolerant and petty-minded as it is. (I wonder if Mr Bone is related to Praise-God Barebone?)”

Ah yes, “tradition”: a word which appeals ever so subtly to notions of comfort and safety. Sadly, though, the argument of tradition is traditionally the argument of someone who has lost an argument, Mr. West. How far do you want to go with traditions? Slavery, women not having the vote, witch-burning? (Incidentally, the church did not play admirable roles on those issues.)

Progressive societies proudly keep good traditions and they jettison bad ones just as proudly. A tradition is not harmless if it affects the smooth running of an organ of the state by allowing a council to act outside of its powers. There is nothing “un-English” about calling to account the unlawful power exercised by a state body. Quite the contrary, in fact.

As a secularist I find the accusation of intolerance and petty-mindedness difficult to take from someone who seems to argue that the practice of praying should be forced upon someone who does not want to take part in it and who merely wants to do the job he was elected to do.

“Political movements often end up mirroring the very people they hate most, and anti-religious campaigners are no different. Anti-religious campaigners are never truly campaigning for a level playing field, but rather for their moral worldview to take priority; their objection to the now very soft, unintrusive Anglican influence on English life is the same one that previous opponents, Catholics and Puritans, had – they wanted to be the ones in charge. All societies need some central moral order, and when Christianity is undermined it merely gets replaced by belief systems which carry their own dogma and list of sins, and which are often more intolerant.”

The Anglican influence on English life may sometimes be unintrusive, but this was certainly not one of its “more tea, vicar?” manifestations. There is generally no obligation to pour a cup of Lapsang Souchong for a clergyman. Here, there was effectively an obligation on Mr. Bone to sit through prayers in the course of his formal functions. In any case, why are we assuming this was an Anglican prayer, rather than an Opus Dei or Christian Science one?

When religions lose their power they become cuddly and unintrusive. When they have power they are intrusive – and violently so. It is therefore the aim of secularists to ensure religions do not benefit from any privileges which only fuel their never-ending thirst for power. If only Christianity – or any other religion – had a good track record in the field of morality rather than an abysmal one, we might not need to hold it so vigorously to account. Christianity might inspire moral order in some but it also inspires moral chaos and degradation in others. Secularism is not a supernatural or moral belief system; it is a political ideology which says religions and religious doctrine are entitled to no greater respect or privilege than anything else. You could say secularism is dogmatic in its assertion that all people have the right to be treated the same regardless of their religion or lack of religion. I prefer that to religious dogma. Don’t you?

“Earlier this week Ray Honeyford, the former Bradford headmaster who became the victim of a vicious media campaign in 1984, passed away, a wronged man but a vindicated one. Honeyford had seen the damage multiculturalism was doing to children and for speaking up he was vilified as a “racist” (the worst sin in post-Christian Britain) by the fanatics of multiculturalism who viewed any non-believer with scorn. (Theodore Dalrymple’s article about him is a must-read.) Multiculturalism is now much discredited; still, try finding a council across England and Wales that does not pay tribute to this new faith, spending millions and millions upon “celebrating diversity”. At least council prayers are free.”

This judgment is not a product of multiculturalism; if anything, it is an antidote to it. If you allow the privileged treatment of one religion or denomination you must allow the privileged treatment of others. The National Secular Society campaigns vigorously against the hazardous by-products of the multiculturalism industry, such as its various fetishes of divisive ‘communities’, self-appointed community leaders and lower-grade (or non-existent) human rights for certain humans considered to be different on the basis that this or that barbaric practice is ‘part of their culture’.

You are correct: council prayers are free (although they do take up council time). I say councillors should be free, too.

“A sad, silly and very un-English case.”

Maybe, but it is worthwhile reminding ourselves why this case came before the court. A state institution – of a democracy – was effectively forcing a democratically elected councillor to sit through a religious act or face embarrassment/a perception of being unprofessional by excusing himself from part of that meeting in full view of those who had elected him and to whom he was democratically accountable, and the state institution rejected two perfectly sensible compromise positions, either of which would have avoided litigation.

With that in mind, Mr. West, perhaps you might care to clarify precisely which party to this litigation was being “un-English”, please?