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Leading article: Religion, not race, is the key

The Supreme Court's ruling that a Jewish school was guilty of racial discrimination for refusing to admit a child whose mother was not regarded as Jewish can be seen in a narrow and a broader context. It is welcome in both.

In the narrow context, the ruling effectively distinguishes between religious and ethnic criteria for admission to faith schools. This means that where a school is oversubscribed, it may not use race as a deciding factor. Faith schools are faith schools; they may not select the intake according to ethnicity.

This could be seen as presenting a particular problem for Jewish schools, because religion and ethnicity are so closely bound together as to be almost synonymous. The child in this test case had a Jewish father and was brought up in Judaism. But his mother was a convert and not considered Jewish according to criteria set by the Chief Rabbi. The distinction drawn by the Supreme Court means that where, as in this case, there might be a contradiction between faith and ethnicity, religion must be the decisive factor for admission to a faith school.

The judgment might be seen, and perhaps will be in some quarters, as a secular authority challenging the Chief Rabbi on what constitutes Jewishness. It should not be seen in this way. This is a ruling that applies to a particular, and quite unusual, circumstance. The court is not contesting the authority of the Chief Rabbi in matters of Jewishness, it is establishing what may and may not be grounds for selecting pupils to attend a faith school.

Even if the narrow aspect of the ruling probably has limited ramifications – similar contradictions are unlikely to arise with Church of England, Catholic or Muslim schools – the broader context is still important. Although reached by the slenderest of majorities, this judgment means that no school, faith school or any other, is above the law of the land. For the court to have upheld this school's admissions policy could have been seen as permitting race to be used as a qualification for school admission, and so the thin end of a dangerous wedge. This was a complex case, but one where a different ruling could have conveyed a highly undesirable message.