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Keep on praying as council defies High Court ruling

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: February 15, 2012

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Defiant councillors opened a meeting with prayer despite an "appalling" judgment which effectively banned the practice in a part of the Westcountry.

Reviews are under way across the region to see if local authorities can still begin meetings by bowing their heads after a High Court ruled it was discriminatory.

Cornwall Council has suspended prayers as an agenda item, and others are following suit.

But Torridge District Council decided to stand by Bideford Town Council, which was at the centre of the ruling, by inviting the town's mayor to lead its prayers at full council on Monday night.

Torridge chairman Andrew Eastman said prayers were included as usual on the agenda when it was sent out – and Friday's ruling meant it was too late for the document to be changed. In future, to stay within the law, they will not head up the agenda as official business, but will still take place on a voluntary basis.

At the beginning of the meeting, Councillor Eastman gave an option for anyone who wanted to leave the chamber during prayers, but everybody stayed. Mr Eastman said prayers helped aid councillors to "connect with their inner-most thoughts" ahead of making decisions.

He said: "For any High Court judge to mete out a ruling like this on those of us who choose to be Christians, and to tell us that prayers are not to be tolerated, is an atrocity, and an invasion of our beliefs."

He said the council sought advice from the county solicitor on how to keep prayers. "This is an appalling decision, and we don't want to lose our traditions," he said.

The prayers were led by lay preacher Trevor Johns, Mayor of Bideford, and also a Torridge District Councillor. He is now considering appealing the High Court ruling, which was a victory for former Bideford councillor Clive Bone and the National Secular Society.

Mr Johns said the inclusion of prayers in the agenda was tradition, and attendance signified respect for the Mayor.

He said: "Everywhere I go, people are telling me prayers shouldn't be banned. You'd need to hold a referendum to find out what everyone thinks, but I think most people want to keep them."

West Devon and South Hams are among those to confirm they had dropped prayers from the top of agendas, instead introducing voluntary prayers as a "temporary measure" until a final decision is taken.

The issue is also under review at councils in Mid Devon, North Devon and Torbay. In East Devon, it is up to the chairman to invite prayers, which are not part of the agenda. Teignbridge District Council will no longer list prayers on the agenda, but will continue to hold them.

Exeter and Plymouth City Councils and Devon County Council have long held prayers on a voluntary basis only.

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