No prayer ban at Norfolk County Council

Norfolk County Council has pledged to keep holding prayers before its full council meetings, despite a High Court ruling which threatened the tradition.

The National Secular Society and an atheist ex-councillor last week won a High Court test case ruling that Bideford town council, in Devon, was acting unlawfully by putting prayer on meeting agendas.

Mr Justice Ouseley, sitting in London, ruled local councils lacked power under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 to hold prayers 'as part of a formal local authority meeting'.

However, it was lawful for prayers to be said 'in a local authority chamber before a formal meeting', provided councillors were not 'formally summoned to attend'.

And Norfolk County Council has decided that caveat is enough to justify it continuing to say prayers before its full council meetings –because they precede the agenda and are not a formal part of it.

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Prayers are usually said there before full council meetings, led by Rev Chris Copsey, who has been the chaplain at County Hall since 2008.

At Monday's full council meeting, the first since the High Court ruling, prayers were said, with county council chairman Shelagh Hutson explaining why.

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She said: 'Our prayers are not a formal part of our agenda. The agenda starts at item one, so we are intending to carry on with prayers.'

However, it was Mrs Hutson who led the prayers at Monday's meeting, as Rev Copsey had injured her ankle in a recent fall.

Norwich City Council, Broadland District Council, Great Yarmouth Borough Council and Breckland Council do not hold prayers before their council meetings.

But North Norfolk District Council, which holds prayers at full council meetings, will no longer hold them within the meeting.

Tom Fitzpatrick, portfolio holder for democratic services at North Norfolk District Council, thought the High Court's ruling against prayers was regrettable.

'On a personal basis I'm saddened by the decision but really, as a council, we have got no choice but to abide by it.

'I think the majority of the members will be sorry, it's a tradition in most councils across the country. 'As far as I'm aware it's never been an issue the whole time North Norfolk District Council has been in existence.'

Mr Fitzpatrick said he thought most members would take up the opportunity to continue the tradition by joining prayers before the meeting was officially started.

It is understood that West Norfolk Council, where prayers are a formal part of full council agendas, is reviewing what will happen in the future.

But at South Norfolk Council there will be no change. Prayers are said there before the council opens for official business, which would remain the case, with councillors given the choice whether they attend or not.

At Suffolk County Council a thought for a day is read by a guest speaker before full council.

Sometimes that is a religious person, who may finish with a prayer, but sometimes it is representatives from organisations or charities.

A spokesman said: 'We've received a number of comments from councillors and will be reviewing the situation in the near future. No decision has yet been made.'

The legal challenge which led to the High Court ruling was launched in July 2010 after the National Secular Society was contacted by Clive Bone – a non-believer who was then a Bideford councillor.

Mr Bone later left the council because of its 'refusal to adjust' its prayer policy, which caused him embarrassment.

In court, the secularists' argument included assertions that prayers breached equality laws and articles nine and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect an individual's right to freedom of conscience and not to face discrimination.

But the judge rejected the human rights and equality challenges. He ruled formal prayers were only unlawful because the council lacked the statutory power to put them on the agenda.

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