The historic tradition of saying prayers at the start of local council meetings is being challenged in the High Court today.
Listen to Mike Judge debate the issue on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme
Bideford Town Council in Devon is reported to have had prayers at its meetings since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
But the National Secular Society (NSS), a secularist pressure group, claims that the practice is “inappropriate” and wants to bring it to an end.
However, critics have warned that the council has already voted in favour of continuing the prayers on two occasions and that no-one is obliged to take part.
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.”
Bideford Town Council is being supported by The Christian Institute’s Legal Defence Fund.
A survey of local authorities revealed that the majority of them include prayers as part of the council meeting agenda.
Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the NSS, said: “We are not seeking to deny anybody the right to pray, but we are challenging the appropriateness of prayers being conducted during council meetings.
“The council chamber and council proceedings should be equally welcoming to everyone living in the local community, and should therefore be a religiously neutral and secular place.”
Last year Boris Johnson criticised the NSS for its attempt to stop Bideford Town Council’s prayers.
Mr Johnson, the Mayor of London, pointed out that Parliament has the same tradition, and that it is helpful for both believers and non-believers.
Speaking to Premier Christian Radio, the Mayor said: “Whatever they may think about the existence or non existence of God or whatever, it’s quite a good thing that they should focus briefly in a moment of prayer, which is a unique period of reflection”.