Unholy row over prayers before council meetings

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NEWTOWNABBEY Council has amended its Draft Standing Orders to state that members are not required to attend for the traditional Bible reading and prayer ahead of full monthly council meetings.

The local authority took the step following an incident at a town council in England when an atheist councillor complained about prayers being said before meetings.

In that case a judge ruled that prayers could be said at meetings as long as councillors were not formally summoned to attend.

After taking legal advice on the issue, council officers recommended that the Draft Standing Orders be amended.

At their monthly Policy and Governance Committee meeting last week, a majority of members voted in favour of the recommendation, but only after a row over a suggestion from Alliance councillor Billy Webb that the wording of the Standing Order be referred to the Equality Commission for consideration. That proposal was defeated by 11 votes to eight.

During a heated debate on the subject, several Alliance and Sinn Fein councillors voiced the opinion that a secular, non-religious setting should be observed within the council chamber and that a council meeting is not the place for a Bible reading and prayer.

“A secular setting is better than a religious setting in a divided community,” councillor Tom Campbell told the meeting, while his party colleague, alderman John Blair voiced the opinion that “matters of faith and state should be separate”.

While the members stressed that their views were not an attack on religion or people’s personal faith, DUP alderman Billy DeCourcy branded their stance “petty” and said he was “prepared to go to war” to protect his religious freedom.

“If certain people don’t want God or religion in this chamber then they can stay outside for five minutes - it won’t kill them,” he commented.

Members were informed that they are under no obligation to attend for the Bible reading and prayer - traditionally conducted by the Mayor’s Chaplain before monthly council meetings - and that those who wish to do so can stay outside the chamber until that part of the meeting is over.