Atheists tell council to end saying prayers at meetings

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A PRESSURE group campaigning for the rights of atheists is to demand that the city council puts a stop to holding prayers at the start of its meetings.

The National Secular Society (NSS) last week won a High Court ruling against prayers held by a Devon town council in a test case that could affect all councils in England and Wales.

Its representatives in Scotland are now to turn their sights on Edinburgh, one of the only Scottish councils to still hold prayers before its monthly meetings of all councillors.

They are demanding talks with city chiefs amid claims that the prayers, which are held by representatives of different faiths each month, could be unlawful.

Edinburgh’s Lord Provost George Grubb, who is a retired Kirk minister, today hit back, insisting that it would be “a sad day” if the council is forced to stop holding prayers at the start of each meeting of the full council.

Norman Bonney, an Edinburgh-based council member of the NSS, said: “The most important implication [of the High Court ruling] is that they will have to examine the legal situation and whether they have the legal powers to do what they do. That was the case in England and it is amazing that, for 40 years, a council has been conducting prayers but have not had the legal right to do so. A local authority can only do what the law empowers them to do.”

Mr Bonney has already demanded talks with council leader Jenny Dawe and chief executive Sue Bruce about the “unhealthy religious divisions” in Edinburgh schools and now wants to discuss the tradition of holding prayers.

He said: “There needs to be some clarification from the chief executive or council leader on what the legal basis is on which they hold this.”

Prayers are held in Edinburgh’s City Chambers after a bell signals the start of the meeting.

Speakers in recent years have included the Rt Reverend David Arnott, moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Rabbi David Rose of the Edinburgh Hebrew Congregation and Marilyn Jackson, of the Humanist Society of Scotland.

Cllr Grubb said: “In Edinburgh, we have a multi-faith society and I am sure many people would be very disappointed if we did not have prayers or a moment for reflection. However, we’ve noted the English ruling and will consider what the implications may be for us.”

He added: “I think it is valuable. It is a time of reflection.”