As a Christian living in London, the most diverse city in the world, with a very diverse background ( I was once married to a Muslim, my father converted to Christianity to marry my mother, and my brother follows traditional Yoruba religion) I’ve come to think of myself as someone who accepts other people’s beliefs as their choice to make and hope that they will accept my own.
It was a bit disconcerting, therefore to see the screaming headlines and read the baffled commentary surrounding the High Court’s ruling that prayer in a council meeting was unlawful. Having some degree of legal training, I was not swayed by the screaming headlines, however, I did go in search of the legal explanation for the ruling but I really couldn’t find one that is satisfactory!
If you study the law long enough, you are bound to find some law that was interpreted or created and seemed reasonable at the time, but which in hindsight seems completely ridiculous.This does not even need the benefit of hindsight. Any person, with even a slight hint of an education can tell that this interpretation of Section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 is plainly ridiculous.
In my humble opinion ( and it must be very humble indeed as I am about to challenge some very fine legal minds) the law deals with people and a belief system is part of the human condition. Therefore the law must find a way to deal with people’s beliefs and not simply say, ‘…..It is not for a court to rule on the likelihood of divine and presumably beneficial, guidance available or the effectiveness of Christian public prayer in obtaining it.’
A similar reasoning was given in the ruling on the Christians praying for people in the street. Surely, this reasoning is flawed. The court need not adjudicate on the benefit or otherwise of prayer, it need not acknowledge or seek evidence (for which there might admittedly be none that would satisfy a court) of divine guidance. It should merely acknowledge and rule on the right of the members of the council to exercise their beliefs which they find beneficial, especially if ‘… it is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of their functions….’ as stated in Section 111.
Anything that allows a person or group of persons to carry out their duties in a better frame of mind surely is beneficial to the discharge their functions. There was no showing of detriment to the member of the council who didn’t wish to pray with the others and indeed the court did not rule that his human rights were violated.
The distinction between the formal and informal parts of the meeting is surely minutiae that the court shouldn’t be concerned with. After all, the effect of the ruling is moot, because the councilors could all just gather 15 minutes before the formal meeting, say their prayers and then start the formal part of the meeting. This could be the potential cause of the alienation of some members of the council who are not of the same faith or of any faith, if going to court to stop an innocent activity as praying hasn’t already!
Maybe Mr Justice Ouseley, who made the ruling, should have taken a leaf out of the councilors’ book and prayed for wisdom, in which case, God might have shown him some grace and given him some of Solomon’s.