Page last updated at 12:19 GMT, Tuesday, 4 May 2010 13:19 UK

Bideford council in legal fight over prayers

Bideford's mayor would like a moment's silence to replace prayers

A legal battle has begun in an attempt to stop prayers being said before a Devon council's meetings.

The National Secular Society (NSS) is seeking a judicial review over whether prayers said at Bideford Town Council breach human rights legislation.

It said the "archaic practice" was "not appropriate in modern-day Britain".

Mayor Andrew Powell said it was "a bit of an over-reaction", to threaten legal action against the 16-member council, which has voted twice to keep prayers.

The NSS, which believes religion should be separate from government, said the legal move was prompted by a complaint from atheist councillor Clive Bone.

Religious worship is a fundamental human right, but so is procreation and people do not take that into the council chamber
Councillor Clive Bone

Two motions by Mr Bone to end prayers before meetings have been rejected.

He described the prayer sessions as "embarrassing", and added: "I support the right of people to express religion.

"It is a fundamental human right, but so is procreation and people do not take that into the council chamber."

The NSS says prayers, which are said in hundreds of councils throughout England, a breach Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which it says guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion for non-believers.

'Fire and brimstone'

NSS Executive Director, Keith Porteous Wood, said: "It is not appropriate in modern-day Britain for prayers to form an integral part of the council meeting.

"The majority of people in this country do not enter a church, except perhaps for weddings and funerals, from one year's end to the next.

It would be obscene if this cost council tax payers money
Andrew PowellMayor of Bideford

"It is also possible that some from other religions will not feel comfortable being expected to participate in Christian prayers."

Clerk to the Council, George McLaughlin, said: "It is not a local matter - I do not know why they have picked on us."

Bideford's Mayor, agnostic Andrew Powell, said he would like to see a moment of silence before meetings to replace prayers.

He said: "I do dislike religions imposing their will on others, I do sometimes find the fire and brimstone a bit uncomfortable.

"Everyone has the right to pray, but they could pray in silence which would not be offensive to anyone."

But he said the legal action was "a bit of an over-reaction".

"I think there are far greater issues than whether we should pray before council meetings.

"It would be obscene if this cost council tax payers money. We cannot allow that to happen."

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