The High Court has ruled that a Bideford town council acted unlawfully by allowing prayers to be said before meetings.

Mr Justice Ouseley ruled the prayers were not lawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972.

Mr Justice Ouseley said: "A local authority has no power under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, or otherwise, to hold prayers as part of a formal local authority meeting, or to summon councillors to such a meeting at which prayers are on the agenda."

He added: "I do not think that the 1972 Act dealing with the organisation, management and decision-making of local councils should be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of councillors, however sincere or large its number, to exclude or, even to a modest extent, impose burdens on or mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression. They are all equally-elected councillors."

"There is no specific power to say prayers or to have any period of quiet reflection as part of the business of the council."

"The council has on two occasions by a majority voted to retain public prayers at its full meetings.

"But that does not give it power to do what it has no power to do."

The judge gave the council permission to appeal.

However, he said prayers could be said as long as councillors were not formally summoned to attend.

The reaction from councillors around the country has ranged from delight to disappointment.

Mr Bone an ex Bideford councillor said people were deterred from becoming councillors when they heard that meetings would start with prayers.

"Councils are for everyone... they're not private clubs, they're public bodies and they should be neutral in that regard."

The Bishop of Exeter, the Right Reverend Michael Langrish, said "I think it's a great pity that a tiny minority are seeking to ban the majority, many of whom find prayers very, very helpful, from continuing with a process in which no-one actually has to participate."

Imran Khan a Muslim and a councillor on Reigate and Banstead Borough Council, welcomed the ruling.

"Religion has no place in politics. The High Court judgement is a victory for everyone who believes that democracy and religious freedom is the cornerstone of Western free society."

"The judgement clearly states that councillors are welcome to pray before meetings, thus respecting religious values."

"Under the old regime I had to wait outside the room while everyone else was praying. This meant that it appeared I was being late or just plain rude to other people's religions as I walked across the floor afterwards," he added.