Council prayers

have now been banned. Cue shitstorm:

And naturally Andrea Williams has a word or two to say:

This ruling is appalling and a direct assault against the Christian principles which this country is built upon. It is a myth that secularism is somehow neutral. The secularism promoted by many today is deeply totalitarian in nature and cuts against the historic freedoms and tolerance which have made this nation admired around the world. Intolerance towards freedom of belief is now reaching endemic proportions. Christianity is being systematically driven out of the public square and we are seeing some very odd judgments from the Courts.

An NSS exec explains:

Our interest in this issue was prompted by a complaint from a Bideford Town Councillor, Clive Bone, who felt uncomfortable at having to sit through prayers, homilies and requests for divine guidance while carrying out his formal duties as an elected councillor. The only alternative to this discomfort was to walk out, unbidden by the mayor, which would look discourteous to those in the public gallery.

And the Secular Society’s report clarifies:

The judgement follows a Judicial Review initiated by the National Secular Society to challenge the practice of prayers as part of the formal business of council meetings in Bideford Town Council (Devon).

Italics mine. Jones confirms:

The point being contested was, arguably, a fairly trivial one: whether prayers could be an item on the formal council agenda.

And he quotes the judge:

I do not think the 1972 Act […] should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of councillors, however sincere or large in number, to exclude, or even to a modest extent, to impose burdens on or even to mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression of them. They are all equally elected councillors.

Andrea Williams is, of course, wrong. Secularism does protect religious liberty. But admittedly it does not protect the sort that she seeks; viz, its infiltration of government. Secularism is more than happy to let people of all faiths pray. What it merely objects to is that freedom being hijacked and jeopardised by the type of council activity seen here in which one faith is privileged, and it becomes part of the nature of political meetings to begin them with an act of worship. And the point is that this would be the secularist’s stance were this Christianity, Islam or Hinduism dominating the agenda. If this is indeed ‘totalitarian’, ‘intolerant’ and not ‘neutral’, then so much for Williams’ interpretation of those terms and the negative value she attaches to them.

I’m in awe of Giles Fraser’s ability to transcend his faith and side with the NSS on this:

I don’t see how it is right for a chaplain to invite a group of people to say “Amen” (this is true) to a diverse group, many from other faiths and none, when the prayer would usually end “… through Jesus Christ our Lord”. Yes, you can try and take all the faith specifics out of prayer. But I don’t think that ever really works. Faith does not sound right or convincing in theological Esperanto.

The key test here is what The Mail, Christian Concern et al. would say were they to be a minority religion in this country. Would they stand by their backing of the majority’s power to dominate the agenda and impose their contentious faith on a public forum? Would they happily sit through an Imam’s speech merely because the Council is largely Islamic, or would they desperately plead minority rights and, indeed, an infringement of their religious liberty? I wonder.

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