Conservative Christians in Britain are butting heads with secularists over a bill about local officials praying before government meetings.
The bill, endorsed by Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles, would allow town and parish councils to set aside time at their meetings for religious observance.
“(The) new Localism Act — the general power of competence — that gives councils the vital legal standing that should allow them to continue to hold formal prayers at meetings where they wish to do so,” Pickles said.
Some humanists in the U.K. said they think the bill violates recorded laws and court cases.
“A small group of Christians in parliament are changing the law, almost unimpeded, to give local councils the power to introduce prayers to their meetings,” said Stephen Evans, a campaign manager for the National Secular Society.
The tension between religious conservatives and secularists began in 2012 when Britain’s National Secular Society won a legal battle over whether a small town city council could pray during official meeting time.
“The high court ruling simply clarified that local authorities have no power to hold prayers as part of their formal meetings or to summon councilors to such a meeting at which prayers are on the agenda,” Evans said.
Pickles said he thinks the new law would allow local councils more freedom to conduct council meetings in a manner best suited for a particular community. In the past Pickles has said he considers the U.K. to be a Christian country.
“(The new law) should effectively overtake the ruling and it also shows that greater localism can give local councils the strength and freedom to act in their best interests,” Pickles said.
Evans said he thinks the bill does not allow councilors to best represent their local constituents.
“Councilors and the local communities they serve will not share a particular faith characteristic,” Evans said. “Institutionalizing a particular religion within the formal business of a council meeting or identifying the council with a belief — or even a range of beliefs — impedes councils from being equally representative of all local citizens.”
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