R (on the application of the National Secular Society and another) v Bideford Town Council

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtQueen's Bench Division (Administrative Court)
Judgment Date10 February 2012
Neutral Citation[2012] EWHC 175 (Admin)
Docket NumberCase No: CO/7755/2010
Date10 February 2012

[2012] EWHC 175 (Admin)




Royal Courts of Justice

Strand, London, WC2A 2LL


Mr Justice Ouseley

Case No: CO/7755/2010

The Queen on the Application of National Secular Society
1st Claimant
Mr Clive Bone
2nd Claimant
Bideford Town Council

Mr D Wolfe and Ms Claire Darwin (instructed by DAC Beachcroft Solicitors) for the Claimants

Mr J Dingemans QC and Mr T Poole (instructed by Aughton Ainsworth Solicitors) for the Defendant

Hearing dates: 2 nd December 2011


Bideford Town Council is a Parish Council in Devon, a local council under the Local Government Act 1972. Public prayers are said at full meetings of the Council, which are held in public and monthly, and on two other annual special occasions, but not at committee meetings or extraordinary meetings. They are thought by some to have been said at the Town Council's meetings since the era of Queen Elizabeth the First. Minutes first record prayers at Council meetings in 1941. Prayers are not recorded in the minutes in the 1970s; but they are recorded again in 1988, and have continued to be said at the full Council meetings ever since. There are a number of other Councils in Devon and probably elsewhere which hold prayers at the start of their Council meetings.


This practice is challenged by the National Secular Society, which campaigns for the separation of religion from public and civil life. It decided to take up the case following complaints by the second Claimant, Mr Bone, a Liberal Democrat former Bideford Town councillor, whose motions to stop prayers being said were rejected by the majority of councillors on two occasions. He had to be joined as a Claimant in order for Human Rights Act arguments to be mounted, since the National Secular Society could not be a "victim" for the purposes of the Human Rights Act, whereas he could.


The challenge claims that the practice breached the prohibition on religious discrimination in the Equality Act 2006, and the replacement "public sector equality duty" in the Equality Act 2010: it discriminated indirectly against persons, such as Mr Bone, who had no religious beliefs, and it was not justifiable under those Acts. The practice interfered with Mr Bone's right not to hold religious beliefs under Article 9 ECHR, and not to be discriminated against for that lack of belief under Article 14. It was also outside the powers of s111 Local Government Act 1972. The Council said that no councillor was made to attend that part of the meeting; they could choose to stay and not participate; there was no discrimination or none of any substance, and it was justified as providing a fitting start to the Council's deliberations, one to which the members had democratically agreed. No statutory authority was required, but if it were, the language of s111 LGA 1972 was amply wide enough to cover it.

The facts


The Town Council has 16 members for the four wards of the 16000 population of Bideford. They are summoned to the full meetings of the Council by letter from the Town Clerk. The same modestly formal style is used routinely: "You are hereby summoned to attend a meeting of Bideford Town Council to be held in the Council Chamber…for the purpose of transacting the following business." The letter then sets out the agenda. The first item is "Prayers by [a local named clergyman]". The second item is the taking of apologies for absence, deliberately second, so that those who do not wish to attend prayers are not marked as absent. These are meetings which the public are entitled to attend by the Public Bodies (Admissions to Meetings) Act 1960, as the letter of summons says. The minutes of the meetings commence with the list of those present; the first item minuted is "Prayers", followed by apologies for absence. The Council's Standing Orders, made under Schedule 12 paragraph 42 of the Local Government Act 1972 for the regulation of its proceedings, make no specific reference to prayers in the order of business. One of the items is "Other business specified in the agenda issued with the summons to attend the meeting."


Mr McLauchlan, the Town Clerk, describes what happens in his witness statement. I quote:

"A full Council meeting starts with everyone being asked to stand whilst the Mayor enters the Chamber. Once the Mayor is in his place he will ask everyone to sit. The offering of prayer is at the invitation of the Mayor after he has formally opened the meetings. The mayor will then introduce the invited Minister and he/she will then proceed to offer prayers. Councillors and members of the public are not expected to participate in prayer and are free to leave the Council Chamber during the saying of prayers. During prayers Councillors are seated.

The prayer offered is a prayer led by a Christian Minister from one of the local churches. In all there are about 8 Christian churches in Bideford and each have, at one time or another, been invited to say prayers.

The prayer time normally takes about 2–3 minutes. After the prayers have been said and the person leading the prayers has left the Chamber, apologies are taken. For those who do not wish to stay in the Chamber during prayers they are able to come back into the Chamber during the time prayers have finished and apologies are taken."


The invited ministers come from all the local denominations; Quakers have also been invited for reflection.


Mr Bone said that there was usually a short homily, followed by a prayer for the Council and its deliberations, sometimes ending with the Lord's Prayer, in which those present were asked to join. All prayers ended "Amen". No attempt was made to make it clear that Councillors who did not wish to participate could withdraw.


There had been no objection to the practice until Mr Bone was elected in 2007. He made no complaint for 9 months, and then in January 2008 he proposed a motion that prayers cease: it was a tradition no longer appropriate, which could deter some from seeking office, contrary to equality policies. His motion was defeated by 9 votes to 6, with 1 abstention. He withdrew a similar motion in March 2008, but in September 2008 put forward another motion which would have replaced prayers with "a short period of silence". This was defeated by 10 votes to 5. A campaign by humanists and the National Secular Society then ensued. This litigation is part of that campaign.


Mr McLauchlan explained why the Council had adopted and continued this practice:

"I believe that the saying of prayers is a valuable part of any full Council meeting. For some it is to seek guidance and help on the matters on the agenda to be discussed. For others it is a time of quiet reflection and contemplation. It enables all of us to focus on the matters at hand and that we are there to serve the local community as best we can. It is a privilege and responsibility to be an elected member and it is good to remember that we are not there to serve our own interests but the interests of the people of Bideford."


He could see no advantage or disadvantage to any Council member or member of the public from the practice. It was part of the traditional role which Christian churches played on many occasions in the country's public life. He saw this litigation as part of a wider threat to the participation of the Christian churches in other ceremonial and public memorial occasions.


Mr Bone is not a Christian, and does not wish to participate in or even to be thought to be associated with acts of religious observance. He regards "the introduction of religious observances into civic life" as "inappropriate and needless; it discriminates against those holding different beliefs, or no beliefs at all, and causes upset, embarrassment, distress and inconvenience." Even if Councillors were told "politely" that they could withdraw, "it would still be unacceptable because they ask for divine guidance and affirm Christian belief." He thought that the seeking of such guidance could undermine confidence in the Council, and that there was some emphasis on being a Christian which excluded others. There was no evidence that the saying of prayers had advanced decision-making or a sense of community among members or the wider Bideford public.


He felt that he either had to participate in the prayers, or to leave the chamber immediately after the Mayor entered, which he would find "embarrassing and inconvenient…especially so because the press and public attend most meetings." So he remained, feeling "embarrassed and awkward." He did not wish to arrive late. He felt excluded from the role of Mayor, since the Mayor is expected to participate in an annual civic service. He is aware of Bideford people who would wish to stand for election as councillors but do not do so because of this practice of holding prayers. He decided not to stand again because of this practice.

The nature of the issue


I think it important that the narrow scope of the issue before me be explained. The issue is solely about whether prayers can be said as a part of the formal business transacted by the Council at a meeting to which all Councillors are summoned. It is quite wrong for the Defendant to suggest that the Claimants would be introducing a bar on acts of worship before the meeting, thus hindering the exercise by Councillors who wished to pray of their right to do so.


The Claimants object to the fact that the saying of prayers is a part of the Council's business, to which all Councillors are summoned. It is on the agenda of business to be transacted, and its transaction is...

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