A leading human rights organisation has called Bucks County Council’s practice of beginning its meetings with a Christian prayer “alienating,” “exclusionary,” and “divisive.”
The National Secular Society (NSS), who advocate for the separation of religion and state so that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged on account of their beliefs, made the comments after seeing this newspaper’s Twitter commentary from the meeting.
At the full council meeting last Thursday, councillors, officers and members of the public were asked to stand and pray before proceedings got underway.
NSS campaigns officer Megan Manson said:
“Opening council meetings with Christian prayers is not only unnecessary – it’s alienating for many people.
“People with a wide variety of religious beliefs and none live in Buckinghamshire, and council meetings should be equally welcoming to all of them.
“Observing Christian prayers as meetings begin sends an exclusionary message, and the county council should reconsider this divisive practice.”
NSS informed us that they would also be writing to the council “to urge it to review its position.”
Figures released in July this year from the British Social Attitudes survey show that just 12% of Britons are affiliated to the Church of England and 52% have no religion.
County councillor for Aylesbury west, Steven Lambert, echoed NSS concerns when he said the following to us:
“I have no problem with people’s faith or prayers in a place of worship or private prayers by individuals. But I don’t think prayers should ever be part of the council meeting. According to the last census, about 200,000 residents are either non-Christian or have no faith at all.
“If we are to serve all residents in a modern public democracy, the council has to stop forcing prayers on everyone as part of its meetings. It’s just not relevant to what we do day to day as a council and doesn’t demonstrate inclusivity and openness to the idea that we are representing all of our residents. I hope it’s one of the things that are swept away with the incoming unitary council.”
The last census was taken in 2011, so if national trends are mirrored across Buckinghamshire then the percentage of non-Christians in the county (approximately 40% eight years ago) will have increased significantly.
We contacted the council for a response. Their statement reads:
“Before the start of Buckinghamshire County Council meetings, it is customary for the Chairman of the Council to read a short prayer.
“This practice was agreed with members of the council, of all faiths and none, some years ago.
“It is not intended to be divisive in any way and if any member were to feel uncomfortable as a result, we would always invite them to let us know.”