ANY attempts to ban prayers before local authority meetings in the Highlands will be opposed, insists the councillor who will lead his colleagues in quiet reflection this week.
The National Secular Society won a High Court action in England earlier this month which ruled it was illegal to say prayers as a formal part of council meetings.
Amid a national outcry that Christianity was being marginalised, the UK Government’s communities secretary Eric Pickles has challenged the decision and the Devon council which defended the court case has appealed.
The pressure group, which represents atheists, agnostics and all other non-believers, is looking into the possibility of similar legal action in Scotland against councils which hold prayers.
Selected members of Highland Council pray for a short time before full meetings of the authority.
A spokeswoman said it had no plans “at present” to review the practice in light of the ruling in England.
Tain and Easter Ross Alasdair Rhind (above), an elder at a Ross-shire church, will pray in the council chamber in Inverness on Thursday before the meeting commences and described it as an honour.
Councillor Rhind said it concentrated the hearts and minds of everybody who was there to represent their communities before debate started.
“I don’t like it being called a tradition because if it is a tradition there is no meaning to it,” he said.
“Prayers are very meaningful and if people don’t want to take part they can stay out. I think it is very important to do it at the beginning of a meeting because we are working for the benefit of the people who we represent. I am proud we are a Christian country and I think Christian values should continue in our country. We represent people of all faiths and no faith at all.”
The councillor said he thought the majority of his colleagues would support the retention of prayers and oppose any potential legal action.
Former Highland councillor Michael Macmillan called for a review of the practice in 2006 and questioned whether equality laws were being broken.
Mr Macmillan, a lawyer who lives on the Black Isle, said the prayers troubled some of his colleagues.
“My simple request did spark off some debate that in some quarters became heated,” said Mr Macmillan. “I felt the debate would have been more appropriate when the legal advice I had called for was at hand. But I did not call for an end to the practice. I was not, and am not personally against the tradition of prayer. My concern was whether in pursuing it the council might be found to be breaking the law.
“I’m not sure what the current practice is but fellow councillors told me at the time that they found it disconcerting to be led in prayer by a colleague with whom they might be in serious disagreement minutes later.”
Mr Macmillan added the Scottish Parliament approach to prayers seemed sensible to him. “I understand they have a short time for contemplation led by representatives of various religions and denominations,” he said.
Keith Porteous Wood, the society’s executive director, said it had instructed its lawyers in Scotland to examine legislation which could form the basis of a case against councils but added resolving the English action was a priority.
A council spokeswoman added a rota of councillors who had put their names forward to say prayers is drawn up and approved by the convener Sandy Park.
“Prayers are not said at special council meetings,” she said. “Prayers are said at the education, culture and sport committee, as church representatives sit on this committee.”
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