A BELL will ring to start religious prayers before the full Highland Council meeting tomorrow(Thursday) in a bid to combat a legal threat to the decades old tradition.
The local authority’s adoption of a “prayers bell” for the first time comes after heavy pressure from a national secularist organisation and the prospect of court action to scrap the ritual.
It means councillors can choose to stay outside the debating chamber until the prayer is complete, if they wish.
However, the veteran councillor who will lead the prayer in Inverness has blamed the break with tradition on political correctness.
Selected councillors have taken it in turns to pray in the long running practice in local Highland politics so the work of the council is blessed but the local authority has now acted to ensure so it is no longer a formal part of the meeting,
A controversial landmark ruling that it was illegal to say prayers as a formal part of council meetings was won by the National Secular Society in the High Court in England in February.
The ruling also has implications in Scotland and the organisation, which represents atheists, agnostics and all other non-believers, wrote to Highland Council in the summer highlighting the case.
The society had also warned earlier this year it could pursue legal action if Scottish councils failed to comply.
Highland Council has now agreed to a compromise and from now on, prayers will start at 10.30am, before the formal meeting begins.
A note to all 80 councillors in the Highlands states: “Members are advised that in future - and for those who wish to attend - Time for Prayer and Reflection will be undertaken at 10.30am in the chamber.
“This will be preceded by the bell to signal commencement.”
A second bell will ring to inform councillors the meeting is about to start, five minutes later than normal, at 10.35am.
A council spokesman said: “As a result of the current ruling we have taken on board the request to keep it off the agenda. It is not on the agenda. The first bell will just clarify and make it clear to those who wish to take part.”
But Inverness councillor Roddy Balfour criticised the move although he said the authority’s hand had been forced.
“If this is the way that they want to do it, we must respect the law,” he said. “If the councillors support it, they will turn up, it gives them the choice.
“But this is yet another manifestation of political correctness and human rights. This is the world in which we live in, goodness knows where it is going to end. The traditions are being eroded away.”
Alister McBay, spokesman for the society, praised the authority’s decision and said it sounded like a “vast improvement” on the previous practice but would reserve judgement until he had watched the internet webcast of the meeting.
“It was clear from the last one [meeting] they were including prayers as part of the formal process,” said Mr McBay, who added it had received a very open reply from the authority.
Councils in Edinburgh and Dumfries and Galloway scrapped traditional blessings from meetings in May and instead organised separate “pause for reflection” sessions.
Mr McBay said he profoundly disagreed with Councillor Balfour’s views.
“We have absolutely no objection to Christians, Muslims or Hindu councillors getting together before a meeting to pray but it not should be a part of the civic process,” he added.
“The agenda of the meetings should not be dominated by Christians or any other group.”