04/10/2012 11:34 pm ET

Britain Town Hall Prayers Approved By Lawmakers

By Al Webb
Religion News Service

LONDON (RNS) The British government has fast-tracked a move to restore the rights of towns and cities to hold prayers as part of their official business, effectively overriding a High Court order to stop the practice.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles spearheaded the introduction of a new "general power of competence of local authorities in England" that gives new powers to local governments to resume prayers and to sidestep the court ruling that was issued two months ago.

The parliamentary order took effect immediately when Pickles signed it on Friday (April 6).

In its own decision against Bideford Town Council, in southwest England, the High Court said in February that it was illegal for town halls to continue with the centuries-old practice of conducting prayers at the start of official meetings.

The British government now says that "Parliament has been clear that councils should have greater freedom from interference."

In broadening these new powers to town and parish councils, it adds, it enables them to "innovate" and "hands them back the freedom to pray."

The action outlined by Pickles infuriated Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, who accused the government minister of "behaving like some sort of dictator."

While Pickles said the measure "sends a strong signal that this government will protect the role of faith in public life," Wood hinted at a possible legal challenge, saying the government is at "risk of being in contempt of court."