Clash in the Classroom: Can a school ban prayer?

News  |   9 May 2024

Written by
Megan O'Hara, Partner

The King v Michaela Community Schools Trust and the London Borough of Brent ([2024] EWHC 843 (Admin)).

At the centre of a recent High Court case were the prayer rituals of a Muslim student being carried out during the school day, the ethos of a secular mixed school in Wembley and the fall-out of a teacher’s decision to enforce the school’s rule that prayer mats could not be brought into the school without permission.

This is the case of The King v Michaela Community Schools Trust and the London Borough of Brent ([2024] EWHC 843 (Admin)). The judgment was handed down on 16 April 2024.

The Court heard evidence and arguments regarding allegations of religious discrimination, a breach of the public sector equality duty under the Equality Act and a breach of the right to freedom to manifest religious beliefs under the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”). These were the claims the Muslim student brought against the school.

The student’s principal claims did not succeed.

The primary challenge was to the school’s decision to prohibit its pupils from performing prayer rituals on its premises in 2023.

The school has 700 pupils with diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds but over half of the pupils are Muslim. The school is academically successful and attributes this in part to a strict approach to discipline and emphasis on each pupil doing their duty to their community, school and classmates (called its team ethos).

Muslims are required to pray five times a day. In 2023, a small group of Muslim students started praying in the playground at lunchtime. The numbers grew quickly. A teacher asked them to put their prayer mats away. Although the majority did, two, including the Claimant, did not. The Claimant was rude and aggressive to the teacher in response. This led to a fixed term exclusion. There was a division developing between Muslim and non-Muslim pupils.

The consequences of these events were significant: an online petition was started stating that the behaviour of the teacher was disgusting and Islamophobic. Threatening and abusive messages were sent to the school. People were shouting abuse at the staff. There was information sent to the school that a bomb had been planted in the school. Security guards were employed temporarily by the school including for the teacher concerned. A school trip was cancelled and the school closed early for the Easter break. A brick was thrown through the window of one of the teachers. As a result, the school introduced an interim policy that all prayer rituals regardless of religion were prohibited on its premises.

In terms of this policy, the Court decided that the policy did not interfere with the pupil’s freedom to manifest her religious beliefs under the ECHR. The pupil had chosen the school knowing of its strict regime, could move to a school that would accommodate her praying at lunchtime and she could perform Qada prayers later in the day (which would mitigate the fact she could not pray at lunchtime). Further, the policy was justified given the ethos of the school and practicalities of facilitating prayer for Muslim pupils at lunchtime considering the numbers that would likely wish to take it up and therefore the resources that would be needed.

Ultimately, all cases will be decided on their specific facts and here the school’s particular ethos and approach together with the pupil’s choice to attend the school originally (partly due to its strict disciplinary approach) and not leave to move to a school that would accommodate her praying rituals has impacted the decision in the school’s favour.

What we do learn from this case is that schools must think carefully about any policies before they implement them and how they might adversely impact pupils of different religions and beliefs. Schools need to consider carefully the reasons for a particular policy and whether they might mitigate the impact of a policy or find a different way that might be more accommodating to different religions. A school’s strong ethos, aims and code of conduct may outweigh any disadvantage but this may not always be the case.

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