England's High court backs prayer ritual ban at schools

Country: United Kingdom

Date of incident: April 16, 2024

In its judgment on Tuesday, April 16, the High Court of England and Wales dismissed a Muslim pupil's challenge to a ban of 'prayer rituals' at Michaela Community School in Brent, north-west London. The High Court judged that publicly funded schools in England can impose such bans of communal prayer rituals among students. It is not yet clear in how far Christian prayer will be affected by the ban.

In March 2023, about 30 Muslim pupils gathered in the schoolyard for common prayer, using their blazers to kneel on. The same month, the school imposed a prayer ban to avoid a “culture shift” towards “segregation between religious groups and intimidation within the group of Muslim pupils”. The Muslim pupil, so-called TTT, who stays anonymous for legal reasons, alleged that the ban on prayer rituals breached her right to freedom of religion. Michaela Community Schools, a state-funded but independently run school, countered that the policy imposed last year was justified.

Now, the High Court of England and Wales ruled that banning prayer did not compromised a child's freedom to express their religious beliefs under European human rights legislation. In its 83-page written judgment, the High Court dismissed the complainant’s claim, because she could have enrolled in another school, where prayer was permitted. The High Court’s judge Mr Justice Linden said: “The claimant at the very least impliedly accepted, when she enrolled at the school, that she would be subject to restrictions on her ability to manifest her religion.” Mr Justice Linden elaborated: "She knew that the school is secular and her own evidence is that her mother wished her to go there because it was known to be strict. She herself says that, long before the prayer ritual policy was introduced, she and her friends believed that prayer was not permitted at school and she therefore made up for missed prayers when she got home." 

Michaela Community School’s headteacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, called the ruling “victory for all schools”, adding: “If parents do not like what Michaela is, they do not need to send their children to us.” On the platform X (formerly Twitter) she elaborated the school’s policy: “At Michaela, we positively embrace small c conservative values… we expect all religions and all races to make the neccessary sacrifices to enable our school to thrive.” She moves on, putting secular and religious schools on parity: “Schools that are secular and multicultural must be allowed the same right that religious schools have: the right to unity, the right to reject division, the right not to have a black group, the Hindu group, the Muslim group, the LGBT group etc.” In her statement she also points out that Christian families put up with revision classes on Sundays. 

According to the headteacher, Katharine Birbalsingh, the prayer ban, introduced last March, came in response to growing segregation and tensions at the school, culminating in up to 30 Muslim pupils praying in the school playground during lunchtimes, breaking a school rule against gatherings of more than four students. Furthermore, some of the more zealous Muslim pupils had also been intimidating their less religious peers, the court heard "Last year, we watched our Muslim pupils put under pressure by a tiny number of others to fast, to pray, to drop out of the choir, to wear a hijab. I watched one of my black teachers racially abused and intimidated, another teacher who had her personal home nearly broken into, and another with a brick thrown through her window."

Politicians welcomed the High Court decision to uphold a prayer ban at public-funded schools in England. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and former equality tsar Kemi Badenoch, described it as a “victory against activists trying to subvert our public institutions”. Commenting in on X Badenoch said: “No pupil has the right to impose their views on an entire school community in this way. The Equality Act is a shield, not a sword and teachers must not be threatened into submission.”

Church of England’s chief education officer, the Revd Nigel Genders commented: “This case does not appear to be about banning prayer in schools but relates to day-to-day decisions of a particular school in its own circumstances. We agree that heads and governing bodies of individual schools are best placed to address these issues locally and would uphold their right to do so. We do not believe this judgment challenges the principle of freedom of religion or belief, or indeed, collective worship in schools, which we strongly support.”

The case reopened a boarder discussion about the role of faith within England's education system. Groups like the National Secular Society and Humanists UK campaign to entirely ban faith activities from school. 

Sources: Link to judgemet (TBHMLFU v School), BBCIndependentThe StandardThe GuardianAl JazeeraChurch Times

Image: X (Twitter, Katharine Birbalsingh)