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Prayer ban in school deemed lawful by the High Court

Posted on 22 April 2024

The High Court has ruled that a secondary school's prohibition on pupils performing prayer rituals on its premises was not unlawful. This ruling has significant implications for how schools might accommodate pupils with religious beliefs.

What were the background facts of this case?

A Muslim pupil at the Michaela School, a state secondary school in Wembley, argued that her school's refusal to permit her to perform a five-minute prayer ritual during lunchtime was unlawful. The school explained that its refusal was based on its prayer ritual policy, which was introduced for a number of reasons. These included addressing the fact that a selection of Muslim pupils were being intimidated by fellow Muslim pupils for not observing religious practices; and combatting division within the student population more generally, as this ran contrary to the school's 'team' ethos. The policy applied to all prayer rituals, regardless of religion.

What arguments were made and what did the Court decide?

The pupil claimed that the policy:

  • breached her right to freedom to manifest religious beliefs under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights ("ECHR");
  • was indirectly discriminatory against Muslim pupils, contrary to the Equality Act 2010; and
  • was contrary to the public sector equality duty, which (among other things) encourages the fostering of good relations between Muslims and non-Muslims and the elimination of discrimination.

The Michaela School argued that the policy did not materially limit or interfere with the pupil's right to manifest her religious belief under Article 9 of the ECHR, nor did it subject her to a detriment, particularly as under the doctrine of her religion, she is able to make up for missing a particular prayer later in the day (i.e. outside of school hours). The school also emphasised that it is a secular school, which the pupil chose to attend.

The Court accepted the school's argument, stating that when the pupil enrolled at the school, she, at the very least, impliedly accepted that she would be subject to restrictions on her ability to manifest her religion. Further, she could, if she desired, move to a school which would accommodate her religious rituals. The school's policy therefore did not "interfere" with the pupil's right under Article 9 of the ECHR. The Court also pointed out that, even if the policy was deemed to interfere with the pupil's Article 9 right, such interference was justified on the basis of the school's ethos.

Regarding the pupil's argument that the policy was indirectly discriminatory, the Court agreed that it put the pupil, and other Muslim pupils, at a particular disadvantage. However, it also accepted that the policy was a proportionate means of achieving the school's legitimate aim of promoting cohesion among students, in line with its ethos, and was therefore justified.

The Court also ruled that the school had paid due regard to the public sector equality duty such that there was no contravention of it.

What are the implications for schools?

This case highlights important considerations for schools which have policies which are drafted to align with a particular ethos and set of principles, but which may, nevertheless, infringe on a pupil's right to manifest their religious belief. While this case demonstrates that implementation of policies which prohibit pupils' religious observance at school can be lawful, schools should be aware that the outcome of this case was heavily dependent on the particularities of the school in question. Factors such as the school's rules and ethos, building structure, timetable and practicalities surrounding how prayer rituals could be carried out, were all relevant to the Court's decision-making.

Where schools are looking to justify any potential "interference" with a pupil's Article 9 right or particular disadvantage to a pupil with a religious belief, it would be prudent to be clear from the outset exactly what legitimate aim is being pursued and give careful consideration as to whether the school's position is proportionate.

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