A secular campaign group is trying to use the courts to ban a North Devon Council from starting its meetings with Christian prayers.
Bideford Town Council has reportedly had prayers at its meetings since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, but now the National Secular Society (NSS) says the practice infringes the human rights of non-believers.
Mike Judge, head of communications at The Christian Institute, said: “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.”
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.
But Mr Judge said: “The council shouldn’t back down. It isn’t in breach of human rights law. Parliament has prayers, is Parliament illegal?”
A survey by the Daily Mail of 181 of the 422 largest councils in England and Wales found 118 start their meetings with a prayer – of which nearly all were Christian. Only 63 had no prayers.
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the NSS, said: “If members of councils wish to pray before their meeting they can do it, preferably in another room.
“We’ve no problem with that. We are not infringing anyone’s rights to worship.
“It has also been suggested the non-religious should leave the room during prayers.
“But if you are elected to serve a public body, why should you leave the room? It’s an old-fashioned and inappropriate thing to do.
“The council is not there to promote religion, but to carry out services for the citizens of this country.”
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.
Bideford’s town clerk George McLauchlan commented: “The council is aware there is a potential judicial review.
“I don’t know why they have singled out Bideford. This is a national matter not just a local matter.”
Prayers before meetings at local councils vary from a formal ceremony at Boston Council in Lincolnshire to the three-word Latin prayer, “Domine Dirige Nos”, meaning “Lord guide us”, at the City of London.
A spokesman for Boston Council said: “The mace bearer will knock on the door of the meeting so we all stand to attention, and then we all stand while the Lord’s Prayer is read.
“It is a very old tradition and it would be a terrible shame to end it.”
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”.