The head of Britain’s equality watchdog has branded a secularist pressure group’s bid to stop a local council from saying prayers as “nonsense on stilts”.
And the Leader of the House of Commons has voiced his support for councils who wish to say prayers.
Earlier this month the National Secular Society (NSS) went to the High Court in a bid to stop Bideford Town Council saying prayers at the start of its meetings.
Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said he ‘dropped his coffee’ when he heard the NSS’ executive director saying that he wanted to use the Human Rights Act to sue Bideford Town Council.
Mr Phillips described the case saying: “What was their alleged crime? Compelling unbelievers to walk over hot coals? Forcing small children to recite chunks of scripture before breakfast? No.
“It was for taking a democratic decision that those councillors who wished to follow the long tradition of saying prayers before meetings in the Council Chamber could do so. This is nonsense on stilts.”
Sir George Young, Leader of the Commons, said that the saying of prayers before council meetings was a matter for the local authorities.
He added that he hoped councils would follow the example of MPs, who hold a “short moment of prayer before we re-engage hostilities.”
The case has provoked a storm of controversy.
An assistant editor at The Guardian and the Labour MP Chris Bryant have both hit out at NSS’ attempt to ban a local council from saying prayers.
Commenting on the case The Guardian’s Michael White warned that the case raised a wider question “about the intolerant impulse many people have to inflict their views on others”.
He said that “communities should surely be allowed to sort out their own arrangements” without interference from the NSS.
Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda, questioned why the case had even gone to court.
And Martin Vickers, a Conservative MP, has branded the NSS as “anti-religious fundamentalists”.