Ending religious privilege – East Herts District to vote on ending prayers before meetings

Did you know that every East Herts District council meeting starts with some members of the council and staff waiting outside the chamber, so that other members can go in and say prayers lead by a vicar? Neither did I, until recently.

That some elected representatives and staff that help in the essential day-to-day running of council business are made to feel like naughty school children, embarrassed into standing outside, so others can use the council chamber for a religious ceremony, is astonishing to me.

Well, one councillor has hopes to change this religious privilege at the next council meeting, this Wednesday the 28th October. He has proposed the motion (details are under the “Agenda reports pack, on page 127),

“The meetings of East Herts District Council should be conducted in a manner equally welcoming to all attendees, regardless of their individual religious beliefs or lack of belief. Religious worship should therefore play no part in the formal or informal business of council meetings, on council premises.”

I’m all the more impressed with this councillor, Adrian McNeece, not because he’s a Conservative, but because all 50 councillors are. This is a single party council, with no elected opposition. He would have little incentive to upset the applecart. He’s also part of the newly inducted councillors, that were elected for the first time this May. For me, that makes his proposal of this motion one that is based purely on his moral outrage that council time and resources are being used in this way.

He should be very proud of himself that he’s seen an injustice and has done something about addressing it. It won’t have been an easy decision to do this without the support of the executive branch of the council and almost certainly against the wishes of some very religious (and more senior) councillors.

While we do have a state religion, we are more and more secular as a population. The Eastern region of England stated in the 2011 census that non-religious people make up over a quarter of the population. A figure that doesn’t include the over 20,000 people that stated their religion as “Jedi Knight”. It’s also a figure that increases at every census. 

That our elected officials continue to use council property and council time for religious ceremony certainly doesn’t align with the democratic process as I envisage it or indeed many religious people envisage it. It’s as foreign to me as if every meeting was started with 5 minutes of sexist jokes. If councillors wish to say prayers, they should hire a side room and conduct their business in private before the meeting, or you know, pop along to one of those large stone buildings that cover our fair country. 

Adrian is to be commended for standing up for secular and humanist values. Councillors and staff, regardless of their religious beliefs, should be able to understand that using council time and council property for religious observation isn’t inclusive of all. There’s plenty of buildings and private rooms where religious observation can be held without making people feel uncomfortable.

Whatever your political or religious views, we are supposed to be an inclusive and representative society. That the non-religious and religious non-Christian, staff and councillors have to cater for a religious ritual, of one specific religion seems very unrepresentative of democracy and inclusive values to me.

The National Secular Society have a good video on this issue and more details can be found on thier website.

I hope all at East Herts District council take note that people watching how this vote proceeds on Wednesday. I implore the councillors to make a fair and just decision, removing this religious ritual from the start of meetings once and for all.

If you live in East Herts, please consider contacting your local representative.

If you don’t live locally, you can still help make the council reach the right conclusion by sharing this and contacting the council. East Herts district council has a Twitter account at @EastHerts or you can find their contact details here.

Adrian McNeece is on Twitter at @AdrianMcNeece and I know he’d appreciate your supportive messages before the meeting on Wednesday.

For those unfamiliar with East Herts, it’s a local government authority in the east of England, with a population of about 140,000. Every four years elections are held, currently electing 50 councillors. The district has responsibility over a large and varied number of services and legal responsibilities. From waste collection, business rates, welfare state benefits and taxation, to name just a few.

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