Councils should have the freedom to hold prayers if they choose to, a government minister has said as he affirmed the importance of prayer in British public life.
The comments, from Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, come as Bideford Town Council in Devon is being sued by a secularist campaign group over prayers it says at the start of council meetings.
The National Secular Society (NSS) challenged the practice in the High Court last week arguing that it is ‘discriminatory’. The judge’s ruling is expected after Christmas.
Bideford Town Council is being supported by The Christian Institute’s Legal Defence Fund.
Mr Pickles commented: “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, we believe they should have the freedom to do so.”
He also commented: “This Government recognises and respects the role that faith communities play in our society.”
The Council is reported to have had prayers at its meetings since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
Mike Judge, spokesman for The Christian Institute, said: “The Council have debated this several times. They’ve debated it, they’ve sought advice, they’ve held special meetings and they’ve voted on it.
“And the majority of them said, actually we would like to continue with this practice.”
He added: “It cannot be unlawful for the Council to say prayers if it has democratically chosen to do so.”
Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS, said the council chamber and council proceedings should “be a religiously neutral and secular place”.
The Council has received support on the issue from an assistant editor of The Guardian and the Labour MP Chris Bryant.
Michael White, who has been writing for The Guardian for more than 30 years, 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.
And Mr Bryant said “surely the 16 members of Bideford Council, who have already voted on this twice, should be allowed to pray, if they want to”.
He continued: “And any member who doesn’t want to pray should be free not to do so. Why it all has to go to the High Court I don’t know.”