Although you Brits may know about this, I wasn’t aware it was going on. The Washington Post reports a national kerfuffle about something that is (supposedly) settled in the U.S. but not in the UK: the right of government assemblies to be free from religion of any sort:
. . . The move to ban public prayers in tiny Bideford — and potentially across all of England and Wales — has erupted into a national proxy fight over the question of whether Christianity should still hold a privileged place in a modern, diverse and now highly secular society.
The match that lit the fires was struck in this quaint town, site of the last witch trials in Britain. Local lawmaker Clive Bone, an atheist, was backed by four of his peers in challenging the long-standing tradition of opening public meetings with blessings by Christian clergy. After losing two council votes on the prayer ban, Bone took the town to court — winning a ruling last month that appeared to set a legal precedent by saying government had no authority to compel citizens to hear prayer.
And the Conservatives, like the Republicans in the U.S., are defending public prayer and the status of Britain as a Christian nation (which it is officially, of course):
. . . the Conservatives in power have unleashed a number of moves seen by opponents as an attempt to claw back lost ground for Christian traditions — including a vow by the national education minister to send a King James Bible to every school in England.
Even normally behind-the-scenes Queen Elizabeth is dusting off the monarch’s historic role as “defender of the faith” and supreme governor of the Church of England, suggesting in recent weeks that by targeting public prayer, secular society has gone too far.
“The concept of our established church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly underappreciated,” the queen, deploying her trademark power of understatement, said in what was widely viewed as a thinly veiled reference to the prayer debate. . .
Even before the ruling came out, Cameron, a moderate Conservative by British standards, was wading into the explosive issue of religion. In a landmark speech in December, the prime minister conceded that he was entering “the lion’s den” in a diverse and secular nation by declaring, “We are a Christian country, and we should not be afraid to say so.” . . .
The government’s move came amid what supporters of a secular Britain describe as a rare campaign by the government to give new footing to the eroding Christian tradition here. Education Minister Michael Gove, for instance, has also moved to make it easier for religious groups to receive state funding to set up schools.
“It is extraordinary to me to see a modern British government promoting religion,” said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society. “It’s an indication that the Conservatives are flying a kite to see whether the tactics of the American Republicans might fly here. I have a strong suspicion they won’t. Britain is not America, and in trying to establish a religious right, Cameron will find himself shot in the foot.”
Let’s hope so. There’s a note of humor at the end:
One person with a decided opinion, though, is the Rev. Alan Glover, 64, the curate at St. Mary’s — a stately church that holds 1,000 but where less than 180 regularly attend Sunday services.
“What a load of rubbish this all is,” Glover said. “I’d never imagined that anyone could be offended by a kind prayer. If you don’t like it, side with tolerance and don’t listen.”
I wonder if Glover would be “tolerant” if there was a Jewish prayer or Muslim invocation.