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Christians lose twice, on prayers and double beds

10 February 2012

The National Secular Society was celebrating success today in a judicial review brought against Bideford Town Council in Devon, to stop it holding prayer sessions before council business.

The society argued that the prayers discriminated against non-believers and breached the ECHR, but Mr Justice Ouseley ruled instead that holding prayers as part of formal council business was unlawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972.

Councillor Clive Bone told the council 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. The sessions were mainly but not exclusively Christian.

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the society, said acts of worship in council meetings were “key to the separation of religion from politics”.

He went on: “We believe that council meetings should be conducted in a manner equally welcoming to all councillors, regardless of their religious beliefs, or, indeed, lack of belief.

“The judgment clearly states that religious freedoms are not hindered, as councillors who wish to do so are free to say prayers before council meetings.”

Porteous Wood said 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”.

In a further blow for religion, the Court of Appeal backed a county court ruling that a Christian evangelical couple who ran a hotel in Marazion, Cornwall, could not refuse a double bed to a gay couple.

Peter and Hazel Mary Bull said they refused a double bed to civil partners Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy, not because of their sexual orientation, but because they were unmarried (see solicitorsjournal.com, 24 January 2011).

Sitting at Bristol County Court, District Judge Rutherford ruled that the hotel had directly discriminated against the couple on the ground of sexual orientation and awarded them compensation of £1,800 each.

The judge said the right of the defendants to manifest their religion was not absolute and “can be limited to protect the rights and freedoms of the claimants”.

Andrea Minichiello Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern, described today’s Court of Appeal ruling as “the wrong decision”.

She said: “A number of judgments have now elevated sexual orientation rights above historic freedom of belief. This was never the intention of parliament, and has no democratic mandate.

“Bed and breakfast owners have now become another category of people in the UK who will be penalised if they try to serve the public without compromising their religious beliefs.

“We are heading towards a two-tier society where only those who subscribe to this new state morality will be able to operate in the public sphere.”

Categorised in:

Discrimination EU & International