Jewish school racially discriminated, says court

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The Independent Online

A Jewish school was guilty of racial discrimination in the way it operated its admissions policies, the Supreme Court ruled today.

The JFS school in Brent, north-west London one of the top-performing schools in the country – refused a place to a boy because it did not consider his mother to be Jewish.

Whilst his father was Jewish by birth, his mother entered the Jewish faith by conversion at a progressive synagogue not recognised by orthodox jews.

Today, by a slim five to four majority, judges dismissed an appeal against a ruling that the admissions procedure breached the Race Relations Act.

However, they made it clear that they did not believe the school had acted in a “racist” way.

“Any suggestion or implication that they are racist in the popular sense of the word can be dismissed,” said Lady Hale, one of the nine judges.

In addition, they indicated that the case could indicate that the Race Relations Act needed amending to allow Jewish schools in particular to operate admissions policies which were in line with their beliefs.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls said after the judgement that he would study the judgement before deciding on any steps the government should make.

He said it was “most important” that admissions arrangements were fair and adhered to the Government’s code on admissions.

The ruling will mean that faith schools cannot use ethnically-based tests to select students – and will force several Jewish schools to revise their admissions procedures for the next academic year.

It also underlines that faith schools cannot use racial criteria when deciding upon admissions.

Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said: “This is an important verdict.

“Whilst not seeking to intefere with the Jewish community’s right to promote its religious ethos, the Commission believed that it had to intervene in order to preserve the same protection against racial discrimination for Jews as for anyone else – not least at a time when anti-Semitic groups are active across Europe.

“The decision of the court achieves that end.”

The school, formerly known as the Jewish Free School, did modify its policy after the Court of appeal ruling and admitted the child to the school.

However, it appealed in order to gain a ruling from the highest court in the land on its admissions policy.

Russell Kett, chairman of governors, said: “The governors and school are naturally disappointed at the Supreme Court’s decision and we must now set about establishing a more workable solution for a Jewish practice test to be used in 2011.”

He added that all the judges had “stressed that neither the school nor the Chief Rabbi (Lord Sacks) had acted in a morally wrong way or in any racist way in the commonly held sense. “

Lord Sacks added: “The closeness of the court’s judgement indicates how complex this case was – both in English law and debated issues of Jewish identity.”

He said his office would be “working closely” with schools, the Board of Deputies (for Jews) and other interested parties “to consider the implications of the verdict”.

The decision was welcomed by the British Humanist Association last night whose director of education Andrew Copson said: “This judgement is immensely important.

“It puts beyond doubt the position that, even though there may be a religious motivation for doing so, discrimination against children in admissions on racial grounds is illegal under any circumstances.

“This is not a matter of restricting ‘religious freedom’ or otherwise: that the admissions criteria of a state-funded faith school have been found to be racially discriminatory should be enough impetus to look carefully at the criteria all faith schools use to discriminate in their admissions.”