Chichester City Council’s practice of having prayers at the start of its meetings, which goes back hundreds of years, could be at risk following a High Court ruling.
The prayers, led by the mayor’s chaplain – currently Canon Tim Schofield, the cathedral’s precentor – traditionally include references to the city, the council and its work, and the city’s people.
The city council’s long history stretches back to the 13th century.
But now the High Court has decided a Devon town council acted unlawfully by allowing prayers to be said before meetings.
Action was taken against Bideford Town Council by the National Secular Society (NSS) after atheist councillor Clive Bone complained.
The NSS said the ‘inappropriate’ ritual breached articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
However, the case was not won on human rights grounds. Mr Justice Ouseley, sitting in London, ruled: “The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a council is not lawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue.”
But he said prayers could be said as long as councillors were not formally summoned to attend.
The judgement is being regarded as a test case which could affect local councils across the country.
Not all authorities follow the practice, with West Sussex County Council and Chichester District Council among these.
Bideford Town Council argued that councillors could refuse to participate in prayers. The NSS said prayers had no place in ‘a secular environment concerned with civic business.’
It said the town council’s insistence on prayers breached articles 9 and 14, which protect an individual’s right to freedom of conscience and not to face discrimination.
Chichester mayor Cllr Tony French told the Observer he was saddened that a practice going back centuries was now being attacked by a minority.
“I accept we live in a much more secular society than in the past but personally I enjoy keeping up these traditions and as an active Christian hope that prayers will continue to be said before our council meetings for years to come,” he added.
“I intend to put it on the next finance committee agenda with the proposal that it is continued with a vote taken.”