Councils should continue to have the freedom to hold prayers at meetings, the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has said.
His comments come as a secular group attempts to use the courts to block a council from continuing its centuries-old tradition of praying at the start of meetings.
While making clear he was not commenting on a “specific court case”, Mr Pickles did say “the new Government recognises and respects the role that faith communities play in our society”.
Mr Pickles also commented that he wanted to “ensure” that councils continue to have the freedom to hold prayers.
Bideford Council in North Devon is facing a legal challenge to its practice of praying before meetings from the National Secular Society (NSS).
Mike Judge, Head of Communications at The Christian Institute described the challenge as “a move by aggressive atheism trying to shove Christianity out of public life”.
In response to a question on the Bideford case, Mr Pickles said: “While I cannot comment on a specific court case, the new Government recognises and respects the role that faith communities play in our society.
“Prayers are an important part of the religious and cultural fabric of the British nation.
“While the decision on whether to hold prayers is a matter for local councils, I want to ensure that they continue to have the freedom to do so.”
In May former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey hit out at the secular campaign to get rid of prayers before council meetings.
Lord Carey said: “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.”
“Councillors can halt the practice of saying prayers through a vote rather than resorting to judicial means”, he added.
Reports say Bideford Council’s budget is a fraction of other councils and so won’t be able to afford top lawyers to fight the case.
Councillor Tony Inch warned: “They are trying to use us as a test case”.
The council is said to have had prayers at its meetings since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I but now the NSS claims they infringe the human rights of non-believers.
The NSS says those wanting to pray should do so privately or in another room.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS, 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.”