The United Kingdom’s Supreme Court has told an Orthodox Jewish school that its criteria for orthodoxy are unlawful, prompting fears about the state intruding into definitions of faith.
The case involved a boy whose application to attend JFS, a Jewish secondary school, was turned down on the grounds that he didn’t meet the criteria because his mother is non-Orthodox.
Orthodox Jews believe that their faith is hereditary following the matriarchal line. The criteria for orthodoxy are determined by the Office of the Chief Rabbi.
But a majority of the nine Supreme Court justices ruled that the school’s position was discriminatory on the grounds of race.
However, four justices wrote dissenting opinions and lawyers who intervened in the case on behalf of schools minister, Ed Balls, said the ruling could have “wide ramifications” for other faith schools.
The president of one Jewish organisation which intervened in the case expressed his disappointment that JFS and other schools will now have to apply a “non-Jewish definition of who is Jewish”.
Barrister Neil Addison of the Thomas More Legal Centre called the ruling a “profoundly dangerous extension of state power” and a “most insidious form of totalitarianism”.
He said: “What the decision means is that the historic Jewish definition of ‘who is a Jew’ is now illegal and Orthodox Jewish organisations and schools can no longer apply their own definitions of membership.”
He added: “What next? Will the courts have the power to say ‘The Pope does not accept that you are a Catholic but we do and so you are entitled to become a Catholic Priest’?”
The Daily Telegraph’s Ed West condemned the decision, saying: “Once again, part of our ancient right to freedom of association has been chipped away in the name of fighting discrimination.”
Mr Balls’ lawyers warned that the decision potentially impacts other faith schools, because in some cases religion and ethnic origin can be “closely related”.
They said that in some areas Muslim schools would have a high proportion of pupils of South Asian origin, and in others “Christian schools may be largely or exclusively white”.
In either case, the lawyers said, an admission policy prioritising a certain faith could fall “within the ambit” of the JFS ruling.
Mr Balls said he backed the right of faith schools to prioritise members of their own religion, and praised the “hugely important” role they play in education.
He said: “We must make sure that the role of faith schools is properly protected in our state education system.”
However, he added that his department would only take further action in response to the ruling “once we have studied the judgment”.
John Halford, of the law firm representing the boy in the JFS case, claimed schools of other faiths were “most unlikely” to be affected by the ruling.
Last month an academic study analysing Ofsted reports found that faith schools are better at building community cohesion than secular schools.
The study also concluded that faith-based schools outperformed secular schools by almost nine per cent when it came to tackling inequality.
The British Humanist Association has called for changes to the Government’s Equality Bill to ban faith schools from selecting pupils on grounds of their religion.
Religious leaders have argued that selecting pupils according to their belief maintains the unique religious ethos which is the secret of faith schools’ success.