17:40 Friday 10th February 2012
Drive BBC Radio Cambridgeshire
NICK FAIRBURN: Let’s return to a story I mentioned earlier, the High Court ruling that local councils in England and Wales are breaking the law by holding prayers at the start of their meetings. It’s caused a lot of controversy today, this story. The case was brought against Bideford Town Council in Devon by the National Secular Society and an atheist councillor. The President of the National Secular Society, Terry Sanderson, told me earlier that he backs the ruling 100%. (TAPE)
TERRY SANDERSON: Well I think it’s a good decision, because it does help people who do feel strongly about their religion not to have to observe other people’s religions, if you like. We’ve already had an example of that in Portsmouth, where a local councillor who was a Christian actually walked out of the meeting there. The local imam was saying the invocation. We don’t want that kind of confrontation and conflict in local authorities, which are there to do the council’s business. And the ruling today has actually said that councillors can’t be called to council meetings unless they’re going to do council business, and prayers are not really council business. So the judge’s said, you know, it has to be taken off the agenda. You can have prayers away from the council meeting, even immediately before the council meeting begins, but not as part of the agenda.
NICK FAIRBURN: One bishop has said today it’s a clear campaign that’s trying to drive religion out of public life. Is that going too far then, do you think Terry?
TERRY SANDERSON: No I don’t think so. There’s no attempt to drive religion out of public life. But there’a a time and a place when it’s appropriate. And when the councillors get together to talk about sweeping the streets, or collecting the rubbish, they aren’t brought together to say prayers. And I think it’s right that you should be able to go to a council meeting, whoever you are, whatever your religion, and get on with the business without maybe having to be embarrassed about saying prayers that you don’t want to say.
NICK FAIRBURN: Do you think, as a population, we’re getting a bit too sensitive about offending people with this kind of thing?
TERRY SANDERSON: No, I don’t think so. I think people are going to have to get thicker skins, because we all have our own opinion, and whatever somebody says, somebody else is offended by it. So we’re all going to have to get a little less sensitive about things, but at the same time I think we do have to accept that council business is council business, and prayers are prayers, and they’re not the same thing, and they shouldn’t be mixed.
NICK FAIRBURN: One of our local councillors today has tweeted, saying he hopes the ruling will be actually ignored, which is obviously quite strong. But you’d go against that, obviously.
TERRY SANDERSON: Well they can’t ignore it, because it’s the law. And a council that decides that it’s going to continue praying will find itself in court. The judge has said quite clearly that it cannot be on the agenda. They can pray, but not as part of council business. And I think that’s a good compromise.
NICK FAIRBURN: Where from here then do you think Terry? Will there be a continuing argument about this? Because it seems like people feel strongly on both sides.
TERRY SANDERSON: Yes, indubitably there will be further argument about it and resistance to it. Because there is a certain sort of evangelical Christian who is convinced that their religion is under fire, when in fact all that’s being asked is that they give up some of the privileges that they’ve traditionally had, so that other people can take a full part in public life without having to compromise their own beliefs. (LIVE)
NICK FAIRBURN: That was Terry Sanderson, the President of the National Secular Society. Let’s have a chat with Cambridgeshire councillor Martin Curtis, who’s the councillor who sent that Tweet today, saying that this ruling should be ignored. Evening to you Martin.
MARTIN CURTIS: Good evening.
NICK FAIRBURN: Why do you feel so strongly about this then?
MARTIN CURTIS: The point I made in my Tweet is that I’m not a Christian. I would consider myself an atheist. But the point to me is what’s really important about the prayers is that we .. what it does is provide an opportunity for reflection at the start of the meeting. Whether you’re a Christian or not, clerics of all religions are very very good at putting messages across across about and reminding you why you’re there, in quite positive ways. And actually for the whole council to be stood around that chamber, and listening to that message, is quite a reminder of that, before you go into what can be quite a confrontational arena at times. And I do think it’s quite an important part of the process, and I’m glad that Cambridgeshire County Council has come out actually along the same lines or similar lines to me today, and said that they don’t support the judgment, and actually they’ll wait until the appeal process is exhausted before they move forward and consider this. And I think nationally the Government has already said that is they have to change the law to allow this they’ll do it.
NICK FAIRBURN: Yes. It’s good that you mention that Martin. I’ll come back to you, because wer’ll hear from Eric Pickles now. He’s been talking about this today, and the Government’s said it will rush through new legislation after this High Court ruling. The Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles said he’s now decided to speed up the introductiion of replacement legislation. (TAPE)
ERIC PICKLES: I’m very surprised by the decision, but it is the last hurrah of an old law which enfeebles local authorities. We changed the law in November with the Localism Bill, which gives councils a general power of competence. And that will be into law, well it was going to be by the beginning of April, but I’ve instructed officials to get it in by the end of this month. And hopefully, by this time next week, we’ll have changed the law to allow councils to be able to do that. (LIVE)
NICK FAIRBURN: Trying to change things then. That was Eric Pickles. Martin, what about Terry Sanderson’s point that you can still say prayers but just not have them on the agenda?
MARTIN CURTIS: Well no because prayers, I think it’s good to have them on the agenda as an integral part of the meeting where it happens, at the council chamber, at the start of the meeting at a set time. And you know I think to me it makes a lot of sense to have everybody stood around that table, around that chamber, and have somebody there who, whether you believe in the god that they talk about or not, that will actually remind you of why you’re there. And it is really important, because we do get quite confrontational in the chamber, and we do need to be focused on the most vulnerable people in Cambridgeshire, and the issues that need our support most. It’s not just talking about emptying bins and cleaning streets, as Terry said. We deal with some really really significant and important issues, and it’s important that we’re reminded of that at the beginning of those meetings. And the prayers actually allows that to happen.
NICK FAIRBURN: Martin, good to talk to you. Thanks for joining us.