Sunday trading, council prayers and the stool of repentance

It was the Nearly Legal blog that invented The Naughty Step to draw attention to newspapers that publish tendentious and/or inaccurate reports of legal issues and proceedings – a concept that was subsequently pressed into service by the UK Human Rights Blog. Nearly Legal specialises in housing law – but perhaps we could also do with an ecclesiastical version for poor or biased reporting of legal matters affecting religion. Much the worst example I have seen in recent months was the bizarre claim by Lapidomedia that “If same-sex marriage is legalised then it is inevitable that legal polygamy will be requested” – about which I blogged at the time.

Since this blog is vaguely churchy, my own place for errant reporters is on The Stool of Repentance (which as well as being a tool of ecclesiastical censure is also a rollicking jig, reputedly by Niel Gow). And the first occupant is…

George Pitcher in the Daily Mail Online, on the subject of Sunday trading laws.

It’s not Pitcher’s views on Sunday trading that are the problem – I have no particular expertise in that area and, besides, he may well be right: it’s his comments about prayers at council meetings:

“It’s said that Communities Secretary Eric Pickles is behind Sunday-trading liberalisation – he who provided the ‘localism’ in our laws that meant that a local authority in Devon could scrap its morning prayers. Thanks, Eric. Having set that anti-Christian precedent, he’ll soon be able to collect his pasties from Greggs at any time on a Sunday.”

As I’ve previously blogged, the crux of National Secular Society & Anor, R (on the application of) v Bideford Town Council [2012] EWHC 175 (Admin) (10 February 2012) was whether or not s 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 empowered local councils to hold prayers at meetings. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the localism agenda, which postdates the 1972 Act by some forty years.

Though I hold no particular brief for Eric Pickles I have no wish to see him unfairly maligned. Far from being the author of Bideford Town Council’s woes, after the judgment he issued a statement to the effect that councils should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they so wished – and that the Localism Act 2011 would give them that right because it conferred a general power of competence to undertake any general action that an individual could do unless it was specifically prohibited by law.

So the piece in the Mail Online has got the issue completely upside-down in that respect at least. But why let the facts get in the way of a lively piece of polemic?

This one was used in Greyfriars Kirk

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