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Council leader prepared to break the law and say prayers before meetings

Councillors in Staffordshire say they will defy a ban on saying prayers before meetings. Photo: PA

The decision by a High Court judge to ban prayers at official council meetings has been met with defiance by leaders of Staffordshire Moorlands' District Council.

Prepared to go against the ruling, councillors intend to carry on their tradition of prayers , as part of official council business.

The new ruling bans prayers being listed as part of a meeting's agenda, but may still be practised informally before a meeting begins.

Stoke-on-Trent is one Midlands' Council that has heeded the change in law.

But the Conservative council leader of Staffordshire Moorlands, Sybil Ralphs, has said she intends to keep prayers on the written schedule at meetings.

Ms Ralph has received cross-party support from other council members, many of whom reject the notion of having political correctness favoured over their faith.

However, critics have argued that prayers exclude non-believers. The High Court ruling came after an atheist former Bideford Town councillor objected that the tradition overlooked non-believers.

Mr Justice Ouseley subsequently ruled that councils had “no power” to say prayers as part of formal meetings and that to do so was “not lawful”.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles criticised the "illiberal" High Court ruling, and called it “a blow for British liberties over political correctness”.

Mr Pickles then fast tracked a new order giving councils "a general power of competence" as part of the coalition's Localism Act, which means that councils can keep their tradition of prayers, regardless of whether they have been given explicit power under local government laws. The power came into effect in certain London boroughs and county councils on Saturday.

It's expected to be in place for other parish councils by the end of March.

Until the new power comes into force, it will be against the law for Staffordshire Moorlands County Council to practise their prayers as before.

But council Leader, Sybil Ralphs says she wants to see prayers reinstated in council meetings.

I feel so strongly about this that I'm going to ask that the Lord's Prayer be reintroduced at the beginning of meetings. We used to have this years ago but for some reason we stopped doing it, and I think we should reaffirm it"

– Council Leader, Sybil Ralphs