Non-consensual religious ceremony has always offended me so I am pleased to see this victory for human rights – unfortunately, in the UK, not NZ. But the case is relevant. The UK National Secular Society (NSS) challenged prayers in local council meetings in December 2010. The case in the High Court was taken against the Bideford Town council – Mr Clive Bone, a former councillor who objected to these imposed prayers was also a claimant. (See British Humanists welcome High Court ruling against council prayers).
Although this was a limited case the ruling will apply to the formal meetings of all councils in England and Wales, the majority of which are thought to conduct prayers as part of their meetings. Furthermore, the Judge recognised that there could be even wider implications and for this reason granted the defendants right of appeal.
No disadvantage to religious belief
The NSS welcomed the verdict – executive director Keith Porteous Wood said prayers had been “the cause of tension in a number of local councils”. He added:
“This judgment is an important victory for everyone who wants a secular society, one that neither advantages nor disadvantages people because of their religion or lack of it.”
“The NSS is not seeking to deprive those who wish to pray the opportunity to do so; indeed, we fight to retain freedom of religion and belief. The judgement clearly states that religious freedoms are not hindered, as councillors who wish to do so are free to say prayers before council meetings.”
The judge made the same point. But once the meeting had become official one group could not impose its ceremonies on all:
“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”.
He compared the imposition of prayers to bringing a “potentially divisive ceremony, such as the singing of a political party’s song into a meeting.”
Whining by the privileged
He said religious freedom no longer seemed to be a priority: “Equalities seem to trump all other kinds of freedom. This is a time for Christians to stand up and be counted.”
“These legal rulings may also mean army chaplains could no longer serve, and that the Coronation Oath, in which the King or Queen pledges to maintain the laws of God and the lessons contained in the Gospels, would need to be abolished.
“This is a truly terrifying prospect.”
Critics of the ruling are painting themselves out as the victims. One blogger claimed : “here is a concentrated drive by progressive secularists to drive Christianity from the public square, and especially the body politic.”
This is the same attitude as the expressed by conservative religionists who have been opposing anti-discrimination laws. They see them as a violation of religious freedom because it prevents them from discriminating in the business and jobs on religious grounds.
So, the snuggle for human rights in a pluralist society continues.
Whanganui City Council
The Bideford situation closely parallels the local situation where the Whanganui City Council has rejected Councillor Clive Solomon’s complaint about imposed prayers at Council meetings.
Perhaps local secular organisations should consider taking similar action against the Whanganui City Councillor. After all one cannot over-ride legal human rights by a majority vote within a group. As Mr Justice Ouseley said in the Bideford case such votes by a council “does not give it power to do what it has no power to do.”
On the way to theocracy?
I really loved this section of the High Court ruling because it does sum up the situation we face with such imposed religious ceremonies. It’s a quote from a previous judgement and says:
“The precepts of any one religion, and belief system, cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of another. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic. The law of a theocracy is dictated without option to the people, not made by their judges and governments. The individual conscience is free to accept such dictated law, but the State, if its people are to be free, has the burdensome duty of thinking for itself.
So it is that the law must firmly safeguard the right to hold and express religious beliefs. Equally firmly, it must eschew any protection for such a belief’s content in the name only of its religious credentials. Both principles are necessary conditions for a free and rational regime.”