By - - BBC NEWS
Added: Fri, 10 Feb 2012 13:02:21 UTC
A Devon town council acted unlawfully by allowing prayers to be said before meetings, the High Court has ruled.
Action was brought against Bideford Town Council by the National Secular Society (NSS) after atheist councillor Clive Bone complained.
Mr Justice Ouseley ruled the prayers were not lawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972.
However, he said prayers could be said as long as councillors were not formally summoned to attend.
The judgement was being seen as a test case which could affect local councils across England and Wales.
Mr Justice Ouseley ruled the prayers as practised by Bideford Town Council had been unlawful because there was no statutory power permitting them to continue.
The NSS, which said prayers had no place in "a secular environment concerned with civic business", argued the "inappropriate" ritual breached articles 9 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which protect an individual's right to freedom of conscience and not to face discrimination.
'No power' However, the case was not won on human rights grounds, but on a point of statutory construction of local government legislation.
Mr Justice Ouseley said: "A local authority has no power under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, or otherwise, to hold prayers as part of a formal local authority meeting, or to summon councillors to such a meeting at which prayers are on the agenda."
He told the court: "There is no specific power to say prayers or to have any period of quiet reflection as part of the business of the council."
Referring to Bideford, he said: "The council has on two occasions by a majority voted to retain public prayers at its full meetings.
"But that does not give it power to do what it has no power to do."
The judge acknowledged the case raised issues of general public importance and gave the council permission to appeal.