PRAYERS before council meetings in south Essex could be banned.

A test case in the High Court has ruled the practice is unlawful after an atheist councillor from Devon complained.

The verdict has been met with disbelief and incredulity by political and religious figures in south Essex, where three authorities – Southend, Rochford district and Castle Point – regularly hold prayers before full council meetings.

Mike Lodge, the chaplain for Rochford District Council, said: “I am extremely saddened by this.

“It seems to be the minority holding sway over the majority, and is more evidence of the increasing marginalisation of Christianity in this country.”

Simon Smith, the council’s chairman, added: “I simply cannot understand why this is an issue.

“Surely we have got better things to be spending our time and money on?”

The ruling was handed down by Mr Justice Ouseley in the High Court on Friday, after a two-year battle between Bideford Town Council and the National Secular Society.

It is not yet clear what the practical implications will be for other councils.

However, Jackie Govier, mayor of Castle Point Council, vowed nothing would change.

“Local decisions should be made by local councils,” she said.

David Norman, mayor of Southend Council, added: “The prayers have always been said in an inclusive way.”