NSS council prayers challenge: Equalities chief Phillips gets it horribly wrong

TREVOR Phillips, Chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, exposed breathtaking ignorance on Sunday by alleging that the NSS was using the High Court in London to PROSECUTE a West Country council over prayers said in the council chamber.

Trevor Phillips

Under the headline Human rights should help us protect the vulnerable (behind paywall) Phillips wrote:

But there are some examples of cases in which, though the Human Rights Act might technically be applicable, I do wonder if people have just lost the plot. Last week, for example, Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society, a decent and sincere fellow, made me drop my coffee when he told early-morning radio that he wanted to use the Act to prosecute the councillors of a small town in Devon.

What was their alleged crime? Compelling unbelievers to walk over hot coals? Forcing small children to recite chunks of scripture before breakfast? No. It was for taking a democratic decision that those councillors who wished to follow the long tradition of saying prayers before meetings in the Council Chamber could do so.

The underlining is ours.

NSS Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood notified us in an email today that he had written to the paper, expressing his disappointment over “the serious inaccuracies” in Phillips’ piece.

We are not seeking to prosecute anyone, and we have we had no objection to prayers being said before Council meetings. It was clear from the Today programme interview that this was not a prosecution but a High Court hearing (a Judicial Review), and as Councillor Christie said on the clip, there had been an attempt to move the prayers to before the meeting (or have a short period of silence), but that the Christian councillors of Bideford had rejected this.

Our co-applicant Councillor, Clive Bone, led that compromise process. We specifically said in the High Court hearing later on 2 December that we had no objection to pre-meeting prayers or a period of silence during the meeting.

Wood added:

Seeking clarity in the law would seem everyone’s fundamental human right, including ours and I am saddened to be attacked for doing so.

Just for the record, the NSS is trying to avoid the creation of a hierarchy of Human Rights with religion at the top, and we see that as a very real danger. That is why we intervened in the application of Ladele Eweida Chaplin McFarlane to the ECHR. We are the only organisation to have intervened to support all four judgments, as the Government has done, although I am pleased the EHRC now supports two of the verdicts.

 I would appreciate an attempt by you to correct the record as both errors were repeated by the Sunday Times’ Marie Woolf and the Daily Mail.

NSS President Terry Sanderson points out here:

The NSS’s court challenge drew an extraordinary and almost entirely negative reaction from commentators. Most of it could have been written well in advance by the usual suspects, so predictable was it.

Ann Widdecombe in the Daily Express could hardly contain her heaving anger as she labelled Clive Bone — the councillor at the centre of this case — ‘an ass’ and added: ‘I hope the High Court throws out this nasty little action, which predictably is backed by the National Secular Society, and awards the not inconsiderable costs against that body.’