Bideford Town Council operates under the terms of the Local Government Act 1972. Public prayers are said at full meetings of the Council but not at committee meetings or extraordinary meetings. The summons and agenda for council meetings routinely lists ‘Prayers’ as the first item of business; the subsequent minutes begin with an attendance list and the first substantive item minuted is ‘Prayers’.
In National Secular Society & Anor, R (on the application of) v Bideford Town Council  EWHC 175 (Admin) the National Secular Society and Mr Clive Bone, a former Bideford town councillor, challenged this on the three grounds:
- that the practice breached the prohibition on religious discrimination in the Equality Act 2006 and the replacement public sector equality duty in the Equality Act 2010 and discriminated indirectly against those with no religious beliefs;
- that it interfered with Mr Bone’s right not to hold religious beliefs and not to be discriminated against for that lack of belief, contrary to Articles 9 (thought, conscience and religion) and 14 (discrimination) of the European Convention on Human Rights; and
- that s 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 did not empower local councils to hold prayers at meetings.
The council’s response was that no councillor was obliged to attend prayers (or alternatively that councillors could choose to attend without participating), that prayers were a fitting start to the council’s deliberations (and that the members had democratically agreed to hold prayers) and that no specific statutory authority was required for to hold prayers – but if it were, s 111 LGA 1972 was amply wide enough to cover the matter.
Ousely J declared that the issue was a narrow one: whether or not prayers could be said as a part of the formal business transacted by the council at a meeting to which all councillors were summoned. Even if the claimants were successful, that would not make it illegal to hold an act of worship before the meeting (para 13).
He concluded that the Council had no power to hold prayers as part of a formal meeting or to summon councillors to a meeting at which such prayers were on the agenda. However, he also held that Mr Bone had not suffered discrimination contrary to the provisions of the Equality Acts, nor had his Article 9 rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion had been violated. The prayers that he complained of had not been not lawful under s 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 and there was no statutory power under which prayers could continue; if, however, prayers had been lawful, they had been conducted in a way that would neither have infringed Mr Bone’s human rights nor discriminated against him on grounds of his lack of religious belief (para 80).
Bideford Town Council was given leave to appeal.
In a subsequent press release, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, was quick to respond that public authorities should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they so wished. He pointed out that the Localism Act 2011 gave councils a general power of competence to undertake any general action that an individual could do unless it was specifically prohibited by law and contended that this general power included prayers before meetings.
The general power in section 1(1) of the Act is intentionally very broad: “A local authority has power to do anything that individuals generally may do”. The section has been commenced and Bideford Town Council’s leave to appeal might therefore prove entirely academic.