Boy 'not Jewish enough' loses school appeal

Law Editor,Robert Verkaik
Friday 04 July 2008 00:00 BST

The father of an 11-year-old boy who was told that his son was not Jewish enough to be accepted at one of the country's leading Orthodox schools has lost his claim for unlawful discrimination.

In a case with implic-ations for other faith schools, the High Court in London has ruled that the Jews' Free School was not breaking the law when it rejected the boy's application because his mother's conversion to Judaism had not been recognised by the Chief Rabbi.

Mr Justice Munby said yesterday that if the father had won his case against the London school it could have rendered unlawful "the admission arrangements in a very large number of faith schools of many different faiths and denominations".

The boy, identified in court only as "M", applied to attend the well-known JFS, formerly the Jews' Free School, but was declared "not an 'approved' Jew".

His father said he was "appalled" that his son had been declared "not Jewish enough" to attend the school, which gains some of the best academic results in the country. Former pupils include Jason Cheetham, also known as Jay Kay, the lead singer of Jamiroquai, and the actress Gina Bellman.

Jewish status is inherited through the mother. M's mother, an Italian national, had converted from the Catholic faith before his birth in a conversion carried out by a Progressive synagogue.

JFS is an oversubscribed, state-maintained school with a culture and ethos based on Orthodox Judaism, and its entry criteria gives preference to children whose "Jewish status" is confirmed by the Office of the Chief Rabbi (OCR). The OCR does not recognise conversions carried out by Progressive synagogues, and therefore did not recognise M as Jewish.

In a case with implications for faith-based schools generally, M's family, supported by two other families, asked Mr Justice Munby to declare there had been unlawful discrimination.

Rejecting the legal challenge, the judge said the kind of admissions policy in question "is not materially different from that which gives preference in admission to a Muslim school to those who were born Muslim, or preference in admission to a Catholic school to those who have been baptised. But no one suggests that such policies, whatever their differential impact on different applicants, are other than a proportionate and lawful means of achieving a legitimate end."

The judge said JFS's policy "of giving preference to children who are Jewish, applying Orthodox Jewish principles" was "essential" to its legitimate aim of pursuing its Orthodox ethos.

He added that, if M's father had succeeded in the case for judicial review, it would probably have rendered unlawful "the admission arrangements in a very large number of faith schools of many different faiths and denominations".

M's parents are now divorced and the boy lives with his father, with whom he is an active member of the local synagogue and of the Masorti, a "progressive traditional" Jewish movement.

Dinah Rose QC, appearing for the family, argued that what had occurred amounted to racial discrimination, because other children were given preference if their mothers were Jewish by birth, even if they were "committed atheists".

Ben Jaffrey, appearing for the United Synagogue, previously said there would be "very serious potential consequences" if M and his father won the case. He said it would affect not only the JFS but more than 20 other schools and other Jewish organisations providing services in the community.

The British Humanist Association supported M's application for judicial review.

JFS is a Jewish co-educational secondary school in Kenton, north-west London. At one time, it had more than 4,000 students attending and was known as "the largest (or biggest) school in the universe".

It was founded on 13 April 1732 as a boys-only school in Ebenezer Square, London, and was moved in 1822 to Bell Lane in the East End, where it remained until the Second World War when its buildings were destroyed by German bombs.

The school was rebuilt in 1958 in Camden Town. It moved again in 2002 to its present location.

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