Sunday, 19 February 2012

Incidentally ..

The recent ruling in relation to the legality of saying prayers as part of a formal council meeting has generated a great deal of heat and rather less light. The judge simply found that the council did not have the necessary powers either directly or indirectly (in a refrain familiar to those working in or with councils it was not possible to find support for the prayers as 'incidental to the incidental').  There is a suitably droll passage in the judgement which says that:

'it is not for a Court to rule upon the likelihood of divine, and presumptively beneficial, guidance being available or the effectiveness of Christian public prayer in obtaining it'.


Now the Government has stepped in to apparently provide a 'power to pray' through the general power of competence in the Localism Act.

If nothing else this will mean that many more people are aware of the new power than would otherwise have been the case.

Two further observations are, however, worth making:

- firstly, it is not absolutely certain that the power of general competence will necessarily provide this apparently much sought after deliverance. The new power is subject to public law constraints and simply asserting that an individual has the ability to decide to pray may not provide complete justification for a council deciding to do so. Indeed there should be a strong case in terms of maintaining the secular approach of neutrality in the public sphere to say that operating in a civic capacity is indeed quite distinct from operating in an individual one;

- secondly, it is as a minimum rather amusing that the Government trumpets the new power as allowing for the saying of prayers at the start of formal council business whilst explicitly denying on the face of the Act the ability for councils to organise their own decision making procedures in ways other than those that are prescribed by legislation or secure the approval of the Secretary of State. 

One doesn't entirely anticipate that changing any time soon or indeed there being anything like the amount of sound and fury about it as there has been about saying prayers in a formal meeting rather than outside it.

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