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High Court to hear challenge to council prayers

28 November 2011

The High Court is to hear a challenge by the National Secular Society to a town council’s pre-business prayers, arguing that they discriminated against non-believers and were a breach of the ECHR.

The judicial review is being brought against Bideford Town Council in Devon, but it is understood that most councils have brief prayer sessions before business, mainly but not exclusively Christian.

Councillor Clive Bone said he was disadvantaged and embarrassed as a non-believer by the prayers, and had the choice of sitting through them or walking out without the mayor’s permission.

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: “No-one is denying anybody the right to pray. Our objection is to the appropriateness of a council meeting as a place for prayers.

“Those who feel it is necessary to ask for divine guidance before engaging in council business can easily do it privately beforehand or silently in the council chamber.

“But this is a council chamber that represents the interests of everyone living in the local community and should therefore be religiously neutral and secular. There are places that are appropriate for prayers, but the council chamber is not one of them.”

Porteous Wood said the fact that a “group of Christian councillors had voted to continue the practice” did not make it lawful.

He added that when the prayers were taken by members of other religions, the Christian councillors walked out.

The society said its claims were based on indirect religious discrimination, breach of articles 9 and 14 of the ECHR, and the argument that the council had no power to conduct prayers.

- In a separate development the Christian Legal Centre (CLC) has taken on the case of Nohad Halawi, a Lebanese Christian who claims she was forced out of her job as a duty free perfume saleswoman at Heathrow Airport after bullying by Muslims.

The CLC said Halawi had widespread support from staff at Heathrow, including other Muslims.

Andrea Minichiello Williams said the case raised “huge issues” of Islamic fundamentalism and religious discrimination.

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