UK Christian leaders warn religion is being pushed out of public life
They are recited at the beginning of Britain’s parliamentary sessions and many school assemblies, but Christian leaders fear prayers could be driven from public life after a court ruled that a council had acted unlawfully by allowing them at meetings.
Although Britain has increasingly become a secular society, it is still a mostly Christian nation, and the Church of England is the established or state church, with the monarch as its supreme governor. But an atheist ex-councillor, backed by the National Secular Society (NSS), on Friday won a High Court judicial review in London, effectively nibbling away at the Church’s influence. It is the latest legal defeat for Christians in the High Court, and came on the same day a religious couple lost their appeal against turning away a gay couple from their Bed and Breakfast guesthouse.
“I’ve no doubt at all that the agenda of the National Secular Society is inch-by-inch to drive religion out of the public sphere,” the Church of England’s Bishop of Exeter, Michael Langrish, told BBC television. “If they get their way it will have enormous implications for things such as prayers in parliament, the Remembrance Day, the Jubilee celebrations (marking the 60-year reign of Queen Elizabeth) and even the singing of the national anthem.”
Government minister Eric Pickles entered the fray by describing the council ruling as “surprising and disappointing”.
“We are a Christian country, with an established Church in England, governed by the Queen,” he said in a statement. “Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty.”
The case was won on a point relating to the statutory construction of local government legislation, the Press Association reported, and could apply to the formal meetings of all councils in England and Wales. Prayers could be said as long as councillors were not formally summoned to attend though, the judge ruled.
“Acts of worship in council meetings are key to the separation of religion from politics,” Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society (NSS), said. “This underlines the need for shared civic spaces to be secular and available to all, believers and non-believers alike, on an equal basis.”
The NSS and Clive Bone, the ex-councillor from Devon, south west England, had also argued that atheist council members were being “indirectly discriminated against”, in breach of human rights laws, a line rejected by the court.
Bishop Langrish of Exeter said Britain remained a religious nation. “Every time there is a survey of religious beliefs in this country, around 70 percent of the population profess religious faith and will also talk about saying private prayers. We are actually talking about something that still accords with the mood and the outlook of the majority.”
by Drazen Jorgic in London