A COUNCIL leader has sparked outrage among religious leaders after saying he would “heartily cheer” when prayers at meetings were made illegal.
The leader of West Lindsey District Council, Coun Burt Keimach was responding to an e-mail from an officer asking for councillors’ views on prayers being said before council meetings.
His response, which has been seen by the Rasen Mail, said: “I am totally against any and all religious utterances in a public place on taxpayers’ money, and will heartily cheer when they become illegal.
“However, for now I will tolerate, notice I do not say respect, the wishes of the whole council.”
His comments were met with criticism from Fr Tom Breslin of Market Rasen’s Holy Rood Catholic Church who said: “It worries me, it seems very dictatorial. You expect the leader of the council to respect the majority.
“While Christians and people of faith are tolerant of other points of view, the author of this statement displays a high degree of intolerance and talks of using the law to outlaw religious expression of many citizens who may have voted for him in past elections.
“Perhaps the writer could be reminded that Communists and Nazis and many others have tried to suppress religion in the public arena and failed.
“I am dismayed also that he should show contempt for the views of his fellow council members, but assure him that we Christians will pray for that he will grow in understanding of the diverse community which he has been elected to serve.”
But Coun Keimach stands by his statement. He said: “I have no religious beliefs and I don’t think they should be forced on people, but our council will obey the law.
“Eventually, I believe prayers at meetings will become illegal. I suppose you can say it’s no longer a Christian country.
“I think America has got it right - I believe in the separation of religion and state and we don’t quite have that here.”
This comes after the government was forced to quickly overturn a controversial High Court ruling making it unlawful for councils to incorporate prayers into proceedings.
It came after an atheist councillor took Bideford Town Council in Devon to the court, with the backing of the National Secular Society.
Coun Keimach said he does not “completely agree” with local government minister Eric Pickles overturning the High Court’s decision. But WLDC Liberal Democrat councillor Ken Bridger, who describes himself as a “committed Christian”, has other thoughts.
He said: “I was a bit shocked when I first read his e-mail. He is totally out of order – as leader of the council I don’t think he should be saying this sort of thing. It’s a Christian county, that’s why people want to live here.
“Plus, it’s part of our tradition and people don’t have to take part in prayers if they don’t want to.”
Rev Michael Cartwright of Market Rasen’s St Thomas’ Church said: “He’s entitled to his views but he should be reminded the law over here is different to the US. And I would remind him they say prayers in parliament before it starts.
“If he’s got a problem with the way things are done over here then he shouldn’t be on the council.”
Market Rasen Salvation Army Envoy Anne Chaplain said: “He shouldn’t be saying this, as leader of the council. You need to respect what other people want to do.”
Caistor Methodist Church Rev Andrew Lomax said: “He has a right to his own opinion but you have to respect the wishes of other people.
“I’m not someone who would force religion onto people but I don’t think the government should make such things illegal.”
Market Rasen New Life Church Pastor Paul Hiley said: “I’m sorry that our West Lindsey District Council representative feels as he does.
“He would struggle if he ever became an MP because for centuries sittings in both houses have begun with Christian prayers, for which attendance is voluntary.
“I hope Mr Keimach would be gracious enough to respect as well as tolerate.”
Rev Charles Patrick of St Peter and St Paul’s Church, Middle Rasen, said: “As you might imagine I value every opportunity to pray, both as an individual and together with others.
“I find it keeps me focussed on things beyond myself, to realise that I’m not totally reliant on my own ability and to check my behaviour towards others.”
Rev Canon Peter Godden of St Hilary’s Church, Spridlington, said: “I regret his attitude.”
A statement on WLDC’s website says it “will create an environment in which there is respect for every individual”.
The council is in the process of doing an internal consultation on prayers at meetings and is yet to make a final decision.
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