http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-17082136Councils win prayer 'rights' as Localism Act powers fast tracked, ministers say
The government is activating a power it says will allow councils in England to hold prayers at meetings.
Communities secretary Eric Pickles says he is "effectively reversing" the High Court's "illiberal ruling" that a Devon council's prayers were unlawful.
He says part of the Localism Act that aims to give councils greater powers and freedom will be brought in early.
The National Secular Society questioned the act's reach and said the move could be challenged in court.
The group opposes prayers in "a secular environment concerned with civic business".
Earlier this month, in response to legal action brought by the society, the High Court ruled that Bideford Town Council had acted unlawfully by allowing prayers to be said during meetings.
Mr Justice Ouseley said that, under the Local Government Act 1972, the council had no powers to hold prayers as part of a formal meeting.
The controversial judgement has been regarded by many as an example of the marginalisation of Christianity, as well as a test case that has applied to councils in England and Wales since 10 February. Bideford Town Council has said it would appeal against the ruling.
The government argues that it was not intention or will of Parliament for this act from 40 years ago to be used to prohibit prayers.
"The High Court judgement has far wider significance than just the municipal agenda of Bideford Town Council," said Mr Pickles.
"By effectively reversing that illiberal ruling, we are striking a blow for localism over central interference, for freedom to worship over intolerant secularism, for Parliamentary sovereignty over judicial activism, and for long-standing British liberties over modern-day political correctness."
He added that the Bideford council case should be "a wake-up call".
"For too long, the public sector has been used to marginalise and attack faith in public life, undermining the very foundations of the British nation. But this week, the tables have been turned."
The Localism Act 2011 establishes a "general power of competence" enabling councils legally to do anything an individual could do unless specifically prohibited by law.
The communities secretary has fast-tracked the parliamentary order activating the power, hoping it will "give councils that want to continue holding formal prayers the confidence and legal standing to do so".
The power can be exercised by all major local authorities in England from Saturday, and should be available to smaller town and parish councils - like Bideford - by the end of March.
The National Secular Society had called the High Court ruling "an important victory for everyone who wants a secular society, one that neither advantages nor disadvantages people because of their religion or lack of it".
In response to Mr Pickles' latest statement, its executive director Keith Porteous Wood said: "A number of senior lawyers have expressed doubt whether the Localism Act will, as Mr Pickles hopes, make prayers lawful, and the Act was clearly not passed with that express intention.
"His powers to pass legislation are not, as he implies, untrammelled. Council prayers increasingly look set to become a battle between the government and the courts at ever higher levels."
The Localism Act's "general power of competence" does not apply to Welsh councils, but the Welsh Assembly Government does have the power to legislate in this area.
I'm of the opinion that it is wrong to force people to pray against their will, but I see nothing wrong if they have a voluntary prayer session before or after the meeting.
Interestingly, one of the Cabinet members has spoken about the rise of 'Militant secularisation':
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17021831Britain is under threat from a rising tide of "militant secularisation", a cabinet minister has warned.
Religion is being "sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere", Conservative co-chairwoman Baroness Warsi wrote in an article for the Daily Telegraph.
The Muslim peer said Europe needed to become "more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity".
She also highlighted the issue in a speech at the Vatican on Tuesday.
She wrote in the Telegraph that "to create a more just society, people need to feel stronger in their religious identities and more confident in their creeds".
"In practice this means individuals not diluting their faiths and nations not denying their religious heritages."
Baroness Warsi, who is Britain's first female Muslim cabinet minister, went on to write: "You cannot and should not extract these Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations any more than you can or should erase the spires from our landscapes."
She wrote that examples of a "militant secularisation" taking hold of society could be seen in a number of things - "when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won't fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere".
She also compared the intolerance of religion with totalitarian regimes, which she said were "denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities".
Her comments come days after the High Court ruled that a Devon town council had acted unlawfully by allowing prayers to be said at meetings.
'Outdated and divisive'
On Baroness Warsi's article and speech, BBC political correspondent Louise Stewart said it was not the first time a senior Conservative had called for a revival of traditional Christian values.
"Last December, Prime Minister David Cameron said the UK was a Christian country and 'should not be afraid to say so'," she said.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) described Baroness Warsi's comments as "outdated, unwarranted and divisive".
"In an increasingly non-religious and, at the same time, diverse society, we need policies that will emphasise what we have in common as citizens rather than what divides us," said BHA chief executive Andrew Copson.
Baroness Warsi's two-day delegation of seven British ministers to the Holy See will include an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, who visited the UK in 2010.
It is understood it is the first time a serving minister of a foreign government has given an address to the staff and students of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy, the British Embassy to the Holy See said.
This visit marks the 30th anniversary of the re-establishment of full diplomatic ties between Britain and the Vatican.
'No logical basis'
Meanwhile, new research suggests Britons who declare themselves Christian display low levels of belief and practice.
Almost three quarters of the 1,136 people polled by Ipsos Mori agreed that religion should not influence public policy, and 92% agreed the law should apply to everyone equally, regardless of their personal beliefs.
It also found that 61% of Christians agreed homosexuals should have the same legal rights in all aspects of their lives as heterosexuals.
And a further 62% were in favour of a woman's right to have an abortion within the legal time limit.
The survey was conducted for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (UK), which describes itself as promoting "scientific education, rationalism and humanism".
Speaking on Baroness Warsi's comments, Mr Dawkins, former professor for the public understanding of science at Oxford University, told the BBC News Channel: "She is obviously a person who really wants to push religion.
"She is not Christian herself but nevertheless she sees religion as a good thing - it doesn't matter what religion as long as there's some religion and that's better than no religion.
"There is absolutely no logical basis for that."
I think this is mostly due to society's values changing, and the Church's remaining in the past. It doesn't help, when prominent members of the Church are calling for MPs to vote against issues, such as gay marriage.
It's also interesting to think, that under Attlee and Callaghan the CofE wasn't disestablished, and that Miliband and Clegg haven't even commented on it as an issue. Clegg is even planning on retaining some bishops in his reformed upper chamber.