Earlier this month the High Court ruled that a town council in Devon had acted unlawfully by allowing prayers to be said at council meetings. These are the same kind of prayers incidentally that routinely take place in the council chamber here in Leicester and in the House of Commons.
As a lawyer I can see how this decision came about but as a councillor and as a person of faith I was disappointed with the judgment.
In terms of the legal aspects, I understand that Bideford Town Council is planning to appeal against the outcome of the judicial review, which had originally been brought by the National Secular Society.
I also understand the Government has fast-tracked a new statutory power to allow councils to circumvent the ruling in the interim.
Whatever the end result it is fair to say that this case has certainly ignited a great deal of public debate, with Baroness Warsi, Richard Dawkins, the Queen and Polly Toynbee – to name but a few big hitters – all recently weighing in with their views on religion.
I can certainly appreciate the strength of feeling on both sides, particularly as we live in a country that is officially neither secular nor religious.
On the one hand our head of state is also the head of the Church of England and Bishops in the House of Lords influence the legislative process. On the other hand Parliament is supreme and the rule of law applies equally to all, irrespective of faith.
Since my election in 2011 I have attended every meeting of the Leicester City Council and I have observed prayers at the start of each of those meetings.
To his credit, every time the Lord Mayor has called upon his chaplain to lead the prayers, it has always felt to me as if the Lord Mayor was simply inviting councillors to participate, rather than insisting that they do so.
I believe that the rule of law should always take precedence over religion because that is the safest and fairest way to guarantee equality for all.
However, I also believe that expressions of faith in public life are a good thing, and that elected representatives should be free to publicly express a belief in God, and even ask for guidance in their work.
I cannot help but feel that this harmless tradition of prayers at council meetings has been hijacked, so as to try and open a new front in the on-going war of attrition between – and I’ll choose my words carefully here – the “very religious” and the “very non-religious”. Sadly that leaves those of us in the moderate majority stuck in the middle as yet another part of our nation’s heritage is steadily chipped away.
This article was published in the Leicester Mercury newspaper on Friday 2 March 2012