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A Verdict on Michaela’s Prayer Ban: A Violation of Human Rights and Discrimination Against Muslims

A Verdict on Michaela’s Prayer Ban: A Violation of Human Rights and Discrimination Against Muslims

Categories: Latest News

Tuesday April 16 2024

ourThe high court judge has ruled that a ban on prayer rituals at Michaela Community School in north-west London is lawful and has dismissed arguments against it on all key grounds after a Muslim pupil challenged the school’s prayer ritual policy. Over a two-day hearing, the pupil argued that the school’s refusal to permit her to carry out obligatory prayers in her “free time” during her lunchbreak is a “breach of her right to freedom to manifest her religious beliefs” and “indirectly discriminates against Muslim pupils”. The school challenged these claims and denied breach of equality and human rights laws, arguing that any interference on the pupil’s religious freedom and any “indirectly discriminatory effect” of the prayer policy is “justified” because “the performance of ritual prayer would conflict with the school’s ethos and its behavioural rules.” The judge ruled that the ban was not an “interference” to religious freedom and that the school’s prayer policy was a “proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”. The school’s prayer ritual policy clearly discriminates (indirectly) against Muslim pupils who make up to 50% of the school’s 700 students. In failing to uphold human rights law that protects freedom of religious practice and the right of Muslim pupils to express their religious identity, the high court verdict is a travesty of justice.

According to reports, headteacher Katherine Birbalsingh made the decision because she believes allowing religious prayer undermines unity between pupils by “separat[ing] children according to race and religion.” The goal of facilitating an environment where all ethnic and faith groups can respectfully coexist is of course an admirable one. Yet, it is incoherent to try and create that inclusive environment by preventing certain groups from expressing themselves authentically; in this case, by preventing religious pupils from expressing their identities through prayer. Birbalsingh’s logic, it seems, makes little sense. Her controversial decision led to the school being taken to court by one of its own students, a young Muslim who claimed that the ban uniquely impacts their faith because it targets ritualistic prayer. This is a reasonable argument considering that Islam mandates a uniquely structured prayer schedule, which includes five prayers per day at specific times, preferably carried out in a group. Any blanket ban on ritualistic prayer is quite obviously going to have a bigger impact upon this form of worship, than for example a Christian child whose faith does not prevent them from praying silently alone when they are able to find the time. For this reason the pupil’s lawyers have argued that Michael’s policy is, in effect, “a ban uniquely on Muslim prayer.”

By imposing a policy that has a discriminatory impact upon students who pray, Michaela School appears to be in breach of a raft of international and domestic human rights legislation which guarantee freedom of religious practice. Specifically, the right to “manifest” one’s religious belief is a central tenet of this principle. The right to manifest one’s religion is understood as meaning the right to express one’s religious beliefs publicly and/or privately, including through acts of worship, the most obvious of which is prayer. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and Article 9 of the 1998 Human Rights Act all contain this directive. However, as mentioned above, there is a more specific case to be made that Birbalsingh’s decision disproportionately impacts the prayer rights of one group of students: Muslims. For this reason, it would appear that Michaela Community School is practicing what is known in human rights legislation as “indirect discrimination” against its Muslim pupils.

The concept has its roots in The Equality Act (EA) of 2010, which aims to protect people from being treated less favourably than others based on their identity or beliefs. Under the EA, “religion or belief” is a protected characteristic, shielding people from being discriminated against because of the beliefs they hold. However, discrimination does not always take an overt, direct form, as any victim can attest to. For this reason, the EA also contains a directive against indirect discrimination. In the context of religion/belief, indirect discrimination occurs when “a rule or policy is applied to everyone but particularly disadvantages a group of people who share a certain religion or belief.” This formula clearly has significant applicability to what is happening at Michaela Community: a blanket policy (ban on ritualistic prayer) has been applied to all students, but particularly disadvantages one group of pupils (Muslims) belonging to a particular religion (Islam). Though the ruling denies breach of the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) the Muslim pupil claimed that the school failed to “eliminate discrimination, to advance equality of opportunity and to foster good relations between Muslims and non-Muslims” contrary to PSED. It would appear that by imposing a ban on ritualistic prayer that indirectly discriminates against Muslims more than other religious groups, Michaela Community has failed to properly give due regard to the discriminatory impact of its decision as is required under the PSED.

Nevertheless, there are some who have taken to social media and the columns of certain newspapers to express their approval of the ban. It is quite telling, however, that most of them are right-wing influencers with well-documented pasts of Islamophobia. The most prominent example is Telegraph columnist Nick Timothy, who has argued that the situation at Michaela Community is a “clash” between “Islamist” ideology and “British values.” Of course, it is completely ridiculous to suggest that school-aged children wishing to pray are somehow guilty of ‘Islamism.’ Perhaps somebody needs to show Mr Timothy the government’s own definition of British values, which includes, “respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs.” Similar examples include former Conservative Secretary of State for Culture, Nadine Dorries, who recently celebrated the “brave head” Birbalsingh and called for the banning of prayer mats in schools. Trevor Kavanagh, the former political editor of The Sun has suggested that a victory for the young Muslim’s court case would threaten the Christian identity of Britain.

It should also be noted that Birbalsingh has promoted the work of infamous Islamophobe Douglas Murray, which is deeply concerning considering that she runs a school with a 50% Muslim student cohort. She has also given speeches on her approach to education at the Conservative Party National Conference, the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange and the controversial National Conservatism Conference, which is run by a US-based think tank which is said to promote the same brand of populist-nationalism seen in the rhetoric of political figures like Donald Trump. Yet, Birbalsingh and Michaela Community do not stand alone in promoting school policies that make it harder for Muslim students to authentically express their Islamic identities. For example in 2018, a school in London banned the  hijab for girls under eight years old, but quickly reversed the decision after complaints from parents. Clearly, such moves all constitute an infringement upon the right of pupils to manifest their religious beliefs as enshrined in the various human rights legislation mentioned above.

The high court verdict is an absolute travesty of justice and all who care about preserving the tolerance and diversity of our multicultural nation should condemn this outcome. The ruling sets a dangerous precedent and could risk encouraging a wave of bans on religious expressionism in schools, and perhaps even beyond into other areas of the public sector. MEND therefore calls upon Michaela Community to reconsider the blanket ban on ritualistic prayer in light of the inalienable human right of all to manifest their beliefs without fear of discrimination, including Muslims. We hope that the parties involved appeal and that the decision is overturned to affirm zero tolerance for discriminatory policies and preserve our religious freedoms.

(Image source: gov.uk)


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