LONDON (RNS) A British High Court justice has triggered dismay and anger across England and Wales with a recent decision that declares prayers at town hall meetings are against the law.
Justice Duncan Ouseley ruled Friday (Feb. 10) that local government councils were violating a 40-year-old law if they conducted prayers “as part of a formal local government meeting.”

But the judge added that prayers could be allowed if they were held before the town hall meeting officially began, and if councilors were “not formally summoned to attend.”

Still, the precedent-setting decision, which is theoretically binding across the country, caught many town halls off guard and few authorities seemed sure of what to do next.

The High Court ruling came after the National Secular Society and an atheist councilor, Clive Bone, filed suit against Bone’s town council in Bideford, in southwest England.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey warned the ruling could have “incredibly far-reaching consequences,” which he called a “truly terrifying prospect.”

“Will the next step be scrapping the prayers which mark the start of each day in Parliament?” Carey wrote in London’s Daily Mail newspaper.

John Bercow, speaker of the House of Commons, moved swiftly to say he would invoke parliamentary privilege to make sure the High Court action does not affect Parliament’s daily prayers.

Some local councils suggested they intend to defy the decision. “We will find a way around it,” said John Breeds, the mayor of Rye, England, including the possibility of praying before the meeting formally begins.

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