The former Archbishop of Canterbury has slammed a secular attack on the centuries-old tradition of saying prayers before town hall meetings.
The National Secular Society (NSS) hopes to take legal action against Bideford Town Council, which is said to have held prayers before meetings ever since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
But Lord Carey says: “The centuries-long tradition of saying of prayers before council meetings is simply an acknowledgment of the important role the Christian faith plays in civic life.
“The attempt to rule such prayers as discriminatory is an attack on freedom and a cynical manoeuvre to drive public expressions of faith from national as well as local life.
“This should not be a matter for the courts as it concerns democratic freedoms.
“Councillors can halt the practice of saying prayers through a vote rather than resorting to judicial means.”
His concerns were echoed by Bishop Bob Evens, the Bishop of Crediton in north Devon, who said: “The saying of prayers before meetings is an integral part of the British system of Government.”
The NSS are using legal firm Beachcroft to take Bideford Council to a judicial review, saying the prayers breach Article 9 of the Human Rights Act.
Councillor Tony Inch fears that Bideford’s town council is being targeted because it doesn’t have adequate resources to fund a robust legal defence.
Mr Inch warned: “They are trying to use us as a test case”.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: “Councillors can, like anyone else, go to church or pray at home whenever they wish, and indeed we do not have a problem with them praying separately before or after council meetings. But it is not appropriate in modern-day Britain for prayers to form an integral part of the council meeting.”
But Mike Judge, head of communications at The Christian Institute, defended the council’s prayers, saying: “It’s a tradition that’s gone on for hundreds of years.
“This is really a move by aggressive atheism trying to shove Christianity out of public life.”
In 2008 Bideford Council faced bringing to an end its tradition of praying before meetings when a Liberal Democrat councillor proposed to ban the practice.
The Council was then given incorrect advice that their prayers infringed human rights laws.
Conservative MP for the area, Geoffrey Cox, criticised the advice at the time calling it “proof of a disturbing tendency to try to use spurious legal arguments under the Human Rights Act and equality legislation to eliminate the Christian faith from the fabric of our public life”.