A fortnight ago the town of Bideford made its most important contribution to English jurisprudence since its witch trial 330 years ago. Mr Justice Ouseley found that Bideford Town Council is not allowed by the Local Government Act 1972 to hold prayers as part of its meetings.
The ruling was met by a chorus of ill-informed protest. Eric Pickles said that councils "should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish". The ruling agrees with him - prayer meetings are permitted before council meetings, but not as part of them. A spokesman for the Christian Institute called the ruling "extraordinary" on the grounds that the "practice that goes back to the Elizabethan era". Quite possibly, but then councils in the 16th Century were not bound by the 1972 Act. The Bishop of Exeter said "I think it's a great pity that a tiny minority are seeking to ban the majority, many of whom find prayers very, very helpful, from continuing with a process in which no-one actually has to participate." This goes to the heart of the matter. The idea of democracy is not John Adams' "tyranny of the majority": it should be a system which disempowers oligarchs while respecting minority rights.
Suppose there were a majority on the Manchester City Council in favour of singing songs in support of Manchester City Football Club at the start of council meetings. Should that be legal?
There is one sentence in the ruling that reads oddly: "18. As the prayers at Bideford Town Council were always Christian, or occasionally Quaker led...". This seems to imply that Quakers are not Christians. I think George Fox, William Penn, and my mum would dispute that.