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Call for end to prayers before meetings in Northern Ireland council

Green Councillor John Barry

A councillor in Northern Ireland has put forward a motion to end the council prayers held at the start of each council meeting. North Down and Ards Council currently has a Christian prayer included in the start of business, an arrangement that Green Party councillor John Barry says is ‘not necessary’ and ‘not inclusive of those of different religions and beliefs’. Northern Ireland Humanists, which is supporting Cllr John Barry, believes that such prayers undermine the civic and secular character that councils are supposed to uphold.

North Down and Ards are not the only council with prayers at the start of meetings, and other councils have been known to have 20 minute Christian sermons as part of the order of business.

John acknowledges that religion is still extremely important in people’s lives but is asking the council to reflect and respect Northern Ireland’s diverse society, by being more inclusive and replacing a Christian prayer with a short reflective silence.

The motion is as follows:

‘That this Council, while recognising the importance that religion plays for many people, believes that religious prayers should not form part of the official agenda of a council meeting. Such expressions of one particular religion are not inclusive of those of different religions and beliefs, are not necessary for the conduct of council business, and are unrepresentative of the Ards and North Down Borough and its diverse communities. A moment of silent reflection at the start of council meetings could instead be considered as a more appropriate way to allow for the inclusion of any religious, spiritual, or ethical dimension.’

The council will vote on this motion on 14 November. If the motion passes the council will then adopt a new reflective silence which will sit outside the formal order of business.

Northern Ireland Humanists Development Officer Boyd Sleator said, ‘With the Lord Mayor of Belfast only a few weeks ago making the inauguration dinner a secular event and now with John putting forward his motion for making council meetings a more secular and inclusive space, I would hope that other departments of our government will start to follow suit. Secularism is misunderstood and many people labour under the misapprehension that it is about ridding the world of religion. This is not the case. Secularism is about keeping church and state separate and guaranteeing everybody, whether they are religious or not, the same right to practise their beliefs without privileging or excluding any one set of beliefs in particular. That is what this motion seeks to achieve.’’

If you would like to know more about secularism and what it means with regards to local government, John Barry and Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson will discuss ‘Secularism, Politics, Religion and Freedom’ at an event this Monday, 6 November, at the Peter Froggatt Centre, Queen’s University.

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact Northern Ireland Humanists Coordinator Boyd Sleator on boyd.sleator@humanism.org.uk or on 07918 975795.

In 2012 a high court ruled that prayers as part of a formal council meeting is not lawful under the Local Government Act 1972: https://humanism.org.uk/2012/02/10/news-982/

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/05/22/bha-becomes-humanists-uk/

Northern Ireland Humanists is a part of Humanists UK, working with the Humanist Association of Ireland.

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