LONDON — Atheists were celebrating victory in a landmark test case on Friday after challenging the right of a town council to hold prayers before meetings.
The National Secular Society and an atheist councillor challenged the practice of Bideford town council in Devon, southwest England, of having religious prayers on meeting agendas.
The legal challenge was launched in July 2010 after the NSS was contacted by Clive Bone, a non-believer who was then a councillor in Bideford.
Bone later quit the council due to its "refusal to adjust" its prayer policy.
NSS lawyers argued that council members who were not religious were being "indirectly discriminated against" and that their human rights were being breached.
However, the case was not won on human rights grounds, but on an arcane point of local government legislation.
Judge Duncan Ouseley ruled in London's High Court: "The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a council is not lawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue."
Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, said the ruling was "bizarre".
He said: "We are pleased that the court has said the saying of prayers at meetings does not breach human rights laws -- but it is bizarre that they should be declared unlawful because of the 1972 Local Government Act."
The judgement was seen as a test case which could affect local councils across England and Wales.
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