Rabbis left without a prayer at councils

By Jennifer Lipman, February 16, 2012

Rabbis from across the religious spectrum have decried the High Court ruling prohibiting prayer sessions at council meetings.

The ruling stems from a court case brought by a former Devon councillor and backed by the National Secular Society. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has derided the ban as a challenge to the "fundamental and hard-fought" British "right to worship".

It was described as "a loss" for local government by Alyth Reform's Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, who served as chaplain for Finchley Progressive Synagogue member Gill Sargeant when she was Barnet mayor. "I think it did add a sense of something, especially in a multifaith borough," he said.

"I had about two minutes [for prayers] and I always made sure not to alienate other faiths. Council meetings have a stroppiness to them. This gave a moment of togetherness and helped people recognise that the purpose was serving the borough."

He had no problem with councils holding humanist or non-religious "inspirational starts". It was important "to bring everyone together, before they get into the necessary arguing.There will be something missing in the future."

In many cases, the role of chaplain existed only because of the prayer sessions. Rabbi Goldsmith added that his involvement had helped him get to know local councillors, making him a better advocate for community members.

United Synagogue chief executive Jeremy Jacobs said that excluding religion from the public sphere would "only be to our detriment.

"Since the start of civilisation, religion has been the source of society's social and moral values."

United Synagogue rabbis have led prayers in a number of councils, among them Bushey's Rabbi Meir Salasnik, when Councillor Linda Silver was Hertsmere mayor.

Rabbi Salasnik, who also led prayers for Hertfordshire County Council, said he could recall only one person deliberately avoiding the prayer sessions.

"This would lead me to assume that the vast majority are either happy or comfortable with it. It seems this is a dedicated minority pushing their views over the majority. It's a shame."

Rabbi Andrew Shaw, who has led prayers at Harrow Council, believed that "no one was ever offended by my words and I think the concept was always warmly endorsed".

When taking prayer sessions at Kingston Council, Liberal Judaism chief executive Rabbi Danny Rich started off meetings with Talmudic stories "of principles of service to the community and about the manner in which business is conducted".

Although the experience had been positive, he felt that, as someone who favoured a separation of religion and state, councils should offer the option of prayer sessions beforehand, rather than as part of formal council business. "It shouldn't be a requirement."

And Maidenhead's Rabbi Jonathan Romain saw no reason for councils - "non-religious institutions which cover those of different faiths" - to hold prayer sessions. "The ruling is not an attack on faith, just a recognition of areas where faith is at home and where it is not at home," he observed.

Last updated: 3:46pm, February 16 2012