Sunday, February 12, 2012

Prayer at Council Meetings

So, the Secular Society have managed to have a ban imposed on prayers being offered at council meetings in England and Wales, and now have councils in Scotland in their sights.

Bluntly, the simple fact that it was the Secular Society that brought this case was reason enough to tell them to sod off. Now, if it was someone who was actually participating that those meetings, that would be another thing, but this case was brought by fundamentalists specifically to cause trouble - and that should not be humoured.

And besides, the judge got it wrong - in this country we do not have any official separation of church and state. On the contrary, we have an official state religion. That being the case, offering prayers is not, in fact, inappropriate.

Now, having said that, we do live in a pluralistic society, and I have in the past noted that it is the job of our government (local and national) to operate in the interest of all the people, not just those we happen to agree with. So, that does raise the question: should prayers be offered at council meetings?

And the answer, actually, is "no, not in an official capacity". And it's that 'official capacity' that is rather important.

See, it comes down to the order of events. If the meeting is called to order and then the first item on the agenda is prayers, this effectively means that anyone attending the meeting is expected to be present for those prayers. In effect, those prayers are being imposed on council employees who have the right to believe differently (or not at all). Which genuinely isn't right.

On the other hand, if the prayers are offered first and then the meeting is called to order, then it's a different matter: that's just a bunch of council employees who happen to be in one of the council rooms holding prayers. There is no obligation on others to join, and they're not disrupting anything. (And the counter-argument "they should be working" doesn't work... find me a council employee who spends 100% of their working day on-task, without a single off-topic conversation, dealing with a non-work email, or other distraction. Hell, find me any employee anywhere in the country of whom that is true.)

In any case, holding prayers as the first item in the meeting (official or otherwise) is actually a really efficient use of time. As anyone who has to attend staff meetings, or review meetings, or, really, any kind of meeting can tell you, the moment you schedule a meeting to be attended by more than one person, you lose any hope of it starting on time. There is always someone who is late. Always.

So, schedule your meeting for 2 (say). Start the prayers at 2, sharp. And then, at five minutes past, when people are actually ready to start, call the meeting to order.

Et voila! The prayers are in for those who want them, the people who don't want them have an easy opt-out, and the time that otherwise would have been wasted (and it would, to pretend otherwise is a lie) has been used productively.


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