Bideford: Not only have Christians done no wrong, they only ever intended to do good

Jack Blackburn 12.58pm

Legally speaking, the High Court’s ruling that Bideford council was breaking the law by having prayers on its agenda was absolutely correct. It does, however, demonstrate an unfortunate state of affairs in this country concerning how we view religion and how we actually approach the idea of toleration.

It should be stressed that, despite what either side of the debate would like you to think, Friday’s judgement was very narrow. Christians have cried wolf by claiming some form of “marginalisation” in this ruling. Mr Justice Ouseley’s judgement stressed that it was the fact that these prayers were formally added to the agenda of Council meetings which was unlawful. The prayers are not illicit, but the law suggests that there is a time and a place for them.

On the other hand, Clive Bone, the former councillor who brought the case, and the National Secular Society should not be claiming a victory. They’re uppermost aim was to claim that what Bideford council had done in putting prayers on the agenda was against Mr Bone’s human rights. Mr Justice Ouseley rejected this outright. All Mr Bone and the NSS served to do was to clarify a point of law, which Eric Pickles claims is soon to be outdated when the Localism Act comes into force.

So either way, the Bideford ruling is not as extreme as has been represented, but the reaction to it does highlight a depressing state of affairs. The view that we should “tolerate people’s beliefs” is widely held but often expressed in manner which makes the act of toleration sound like an onerous task, akin to keeping a dangerous lunatic happy so that they do not overrun the asylum.

In certain instances, the general rule of tolerating everyone’s sincerely held beliefs logically runs into absurd situations which are rightly put under intellectual scrutiny. For instance, can we really tolerate the sincerely held beliefs of Muqtada al-Sadr? Clearly, most reasonable people would say no, implying the conclusion that there are limits to our toleration.

Did Bideford Council transgress those implicit limits? No. Not even close. The less hysterical Christian response has highlighted that all the councillors were doing was conducting a ritual according to the beliefs of their faith to assist them in making the best decision for their constituents. They did not force Mr Bone to partake, and many other councils across the country do not force their councillors to take part in prayers (Christian or otherwise), though it is reasonable to say that the prayers do not have to be the official agenda.

But one could equally say that it costs nothing for an atheist councillor, or a councillor of a different faith, to sit there and accept the prayer in the spirit it is given, which is one of goodwill and generosity. It should be noted that this is not a Christian issue. Indeed, the NSS gleefully pointed to an incident in Portsmouth when a councillor walked out to avoid a Muslim prayer. The councillor’s actions are as bad as those who do not accept the prayers in the spirit they are given. Any prayer, sincerely offered with a view to making better decisions should be accepted as a good gesture, even if you think the prayer will have no effect.

To claim that prayers at council meetings come even close to a violation of human rights is absurd, and one can understand why Christians have been so upset. Not only have they done no wrong, but they only ever intended good.

In part, toleration means accepting the generosity of a religious tradition and being grateful for its benevolence. Regardless of whether or not you think it is going to have any actual effect, the act of prayer itself has meaning. In the case of al-Sadr, that meaning can often be malicious and we should stand against that. In the case of Bideford council, our society, religious or atheist, should have taken this generous act with thankfulness.

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