High Court bid over council prayers
The long tradition of prayers being said before local council meetings is to come under challenge at the High Court.
The National Secular Society (NSS) is arguing that the religious ritual is "inappropriate" in what should be "a secular environment concerned with civic business".
NSS president Terry Sanderson said that, in a multi-faith society, the practice was leading to a worrying "potential for conflict".
A survey of local authorities showed that the majority of them include prayers as part of the council meeting agenda.
In what could serve as a test case, the NSS is taking Bideford town council in Devon to the High Court in London on Friday. It is acting on a complaint from local councillor Clive Bone, a non-believer who says he is "disadvantaged and embarrassed" when Christian prayers are said.
The NSS says even a suggested compromise period of silence was rejected by the council. NSS lawyers argue that council members of no religion are being indirectly discriminated against without justification, and that is unlawful.
They contend the council's insistence on prayers being said breaches articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect an individual's right to freedom of conscience and not to face discrimination.
Mr Sanderson said it was not just Christian prayer, but religious prayer generally, that was a cause for concern. He cited a case in Portsmouth in January this year when a Tory councillor caused a row by walking out of a city council meeting to miss a Muslim prayer.
Mr Sanderson said: "In Portsmouth, they tried a multi-faith approach with prayers from different religions, but when the Muslim turn came round Cllr Malcolm Hey walked out.
"This shows the potential for conflict. We think it would be much better if people keep their prayers private and away from the council chamber so that everyone can participate in the democratic process without embarrassment or causing aggravation to members of other religions, or of none."