Wednesday 17 April 2024

Church schools unaffected by Muslim prayer-ban ruling

Katharine Birbalsingh's school claims VICTORY after being taken to court by  Muslim pupil over ban on prayer

A HIGH COURT ruling that upheld a school’s decision to ban Muslim prayer rituals does not challenge the principle of freedom of religion or belief, the Church of England’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders, has said.

Michaela School in Wembley — a non-faith state secondary school — was taken to court by one of its female students over the school’s policy, which she argued was discriminatory. There is no legal requirement for schools to allow pupils a time or place to pray.

On Tuesday, Mr Justice Linden dismissed the case. In his 83-page written judgment, he said: “The claimant at the very least impliedly accepted, when she enrolled at the school, that she would be subject to restrictions on her ability to manifest her religion.”

Of about 700 pupils at the school, about half are Muslim, the High Court had heard. The school, which is rated Outstanding, has strict rules on uniform, silence in corridors, and a ban on groups of more than four gathering during breaks.

In March 2023, about 30 students began praying in the schoolyard, using their blazers to kneel on, the court heard. 

It also heard that a ban on prayer was issued the same month owing to concerns about a “culture shift” towards “segregation between religious groups and intimidation within the group of Muslim pupils”.

The Headteacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, who set up the school a decade ago, said on Tuesday that the ruling was a “victory for all schools”, adding: “If parents do not like what Michaela is, they do not need to send their children to us.”

The National Secular Society also welcomed the decision. Its chief executive, Stephen Evans, said that it “also serves as a useful reminder that claims of religious freedom do not trump all other considerations. If a school wishes to uphold a secular ethos, it should be entitled to do so.”

Mr Genders agreed. He commented: “This case does not appear to be about banning prayer in schools but relates to day-to-day decisions of a particular school in its own circumstances.

“We agree that heads and governing bodies of individual schools are best placed to address these issues locally and would uphold their right to do so. We do not believe this judgment challenges the principle of freedom of religion or belief, or indeed, collective worship in schools, which we strongly support.”

The student said that, while she was “disappointed” at losing, “I still feel that I did the right thing in seeking to challenge the ban. I tried my best and was true to myself and my religion.”