Who’s in charge of the asylum anyway?

I’ve been too slow to comment on the decision by a British court that the holding of a time of prayer in local council meetings is illegal. The case was brought by an ex-council member from a place not far from here, who was following the New Atheist agenda of claiming that his (evolved?) human rights were being abrogated by others praying, even though he had been quite at liberty to absent himself.

The judge actually decided that his rights were not breached at all, but rather like the Dover Trial judge decided that he’d answer a question he hadn’t been asked for free, and said that councils had no right to have prayer before meetings anyway, under the 1972 Local Authorities Act.


This may not seem strange to American readers, who’ve had more than a generation to grow accustomed to the forbidding of prayer in public institutions in order, somehow, to increase people’s God-given constitutional liberties. Only the Americans could be subtle enough to exclude religion from every part of public life except its legal basis!

But Britain, though it has no written constitution, has a system of liberties going back, altogether, well over a thousand years. Our head of state is head of an established Church, and rules only by virtue of a Trinitarian Coronation Oath. Our educational system still has a legally-appointed requirement for a daily time of “broadly Christian” worship. Our parliamentary sessions begin with a time of prayer, and Anglican bishops still have a role in the House of Lords by virtue of their ecclesiastical standing.

As for council meetings, the custom of prayer goes back to Elizabethan times, when it became permissible for those not in holy orders to pray in public. But given that many branches of government involved the clergy before that time, I’ve no doubt that the practice is actually much older. And it was a right hard-won by the common people, and maintained against political control at, sometimes, great personal cost. That’s why this ruling was an unwelcome surprise not only to ordinary believers like me, but to the Prime Minister and members of the cabinet, to Muslim, Hindu and other minority faith-spokespersons, and to the Queen herself, who was uncharacteristically outspoken in her criticism of the secular direction in which the country is headed.

The fact is that nobody was aware that religion had ever been a contentious enough issue to be “dealt with” by the Local Government Act. So what is it that Clause 111 of the aforementioned Act says to forbid invoking God’s blessing and wisdom on proceedings? Here is the section in full:

111 Subsidiary powers of local authorities.
(1) Without prejudice to any powers exercisable apart from this section but subject to the provisions of this Act and any other enactment passed before or after this Act, a local authority shall have power to do any thing (whether or not involving the expenditure, borrowing or lending of money or the acquisition or disposal of any property or rights) which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions.
(2) For the purposes of this section, transacting the business of a parish or community meeting or any other parish or community business shall be treated as a function of the parish or community council.
(3) A local authority shall not by virtue of this section raise money, whether by means of rates, precepts or borrowing, or lend money except in accordance with the enactments relating to those matters respectively.
(4) In this section “local authority” includes the Common Council.

Now, I’m not a lawyer, but the only clause that seems remotely applicable is the first, which says absolutely nothing about prayer. Or religion. Or indeed about anything specific when it comes to proscription. The judge’s logic seems to be thus:

  1. This clause empowers councils to do anything calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions.
  2. But prayer is not calculated to facilitate, nor is it conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions.
    1. Therefore councils may not pray corporately at meetings.

    There would seem to be a couple of glaring issues there. The first is the value-judgement by the judge in the case that prayer is ineffective by its very character, whereas on the face of it the help of God would seem to be a very reasonably “calculated” on the part of believing councillors to facilitate their functions. Unless, of course, the judge has declared that praying is not even “doing any thing”.

    The second is the very questionable assumption that the clause’s legal permission for councils to do anything to help discharge their functions necessarily forbids every other activity. It has never been a feature of British law that everything is forbidden except what the state permits, but the reverse: law is drafted to limit freedom only when absolutely necessary. To proceed otherwise must lead to insane consequences. For example, for council members to absent themselves to answer a call of nature may faciliate the discharge of their own bodily functions, but cannot be said to further the functions of the council itself. So one supposes councils have no legal right to permit such absences. One could argue similarly that, whilst opening a meeting enhances the council’s statutory functions, closing it does the very opposite, so that this clause implicitly forbids councils from going into recess.

    It is clear that the judge’s ruling takes a very strict view of what the law means by this clause, since he cannot see that prayer is able to facilitate council business. It is not even conducive to it – no, not even incidental, or else it would be permitted. Councils, it seems, are expected to do their council business at meetings, and nothing else. On that basis, providing coffee or biscuits would certainly not be conducive. Giving a vote of thanks to an outgoing member would be a frivolous distraction from business.

    The nonsense could be extended, of course, and would still be nonsense. Because nobody in their right mind would suppose that Section 111 of the Local Government Act, 1972, was ever intended to dictate every last detail of what happens within the council chamber of a parish or town council.

    And yet one individual, Mr Justice Ouseley, has been able to decide, on the law’s authority, that is was intended to outlaw the liberty of a millennium and the rights of thousands of godly councillors across what is still, in law, a Christian state. If that decision is allowed to stand, it will show that not only the judge, but the entire Britsih legal system, is run by people who are out of their minds.

    Jon Garvey

    About Jon Garvey

    Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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