• Wednesday, April 17, 2024

News

Katherine Birbalsingh’s school faces legal challenge over ‘prayer ban’

Michaela School introduced a policy in March 2023 ‘banning prayer rituals’

Katharine Birbalsingh

By: Pramod Thomas

A school, headed by the former government social mobility tsar Katharine Birbalsingh, is facing a legal challenge in the High Court regarding a policy allegedly amounting to a ‘prayer ban’.

Michaela School in Brent, north London, faced legal scrutiny in the court over allegations of implementing a “prayer ban.”

The school’s policy, introduced in March 2023, prompted a legal challenge from a Muslim student who argued that it violated her freedom of religion.

Represented by Sarah Hannett KC, the student claimed the ban had fundamentally altered her experience as a Muslim in the country, likening it to feeling excluded. Hannett argued that the policy effectively prevented Muslim students from praying due to the ritualised nature of their prayers.

The student’s proposed compromise sought permission for Muslim pupils to pray for approximately five minutes during lunchtime on specified dates, excluding prayer during lessons. Hannett emphasised the adverse impact of the ban on her client’s well-being, causing feelings of guilt and unhappiness.

The school, located across from Wembley Park station, has gained a reputation as one of the strictest in Britain, largely due to Birbalsingh’s contentious remarks and unconventional teaching approaches that have previously garnered media attention.

In response, Jason Coppel KC, representing the Michaela School Community Trust, argued that the headteacher’s decision to enforce the ban was an emergency response to escalating tensions within the school community.

Coppel added that the ban was justified and proportionate, considering threats and bomb hoaxes linked to religious observance on school premises.

The court heard that up to 30 students began praying in the schoolyard in March 2023, leading to concerns about a potential shift towards segregation and intimidation among religious groups.

Coppel outlined instances of peer pressure, including a student being pressured to wear a headscarf and another leaving the school’s choir due to religious reasons.

He also detailed the school’s challenges during that period, citing online abuse, a brick thrown through a teacher’s window, and a bomb threat. The governing body maintained the ban on prayer rituals in May 2023.

According to the reports, the case highlighted the complex balance between religious freedom and maintaining a harmonious school environment.

The school maintained that the prayer ban is necessary to address safety concerns, while the student argues that it infringes upon her constitutional right to practice her religion freely.

The judge, Justice Linden, will deliver a ruling at a later date.

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