How can a school best strike a balance between its uniform policy and its pupils’ right to manifest their religion or belief?

The case of P v A Local Authority (2007) (not yet reported) looked at the issue of uniform policy and religious belief. The school uniform policy stated that  jewelry was not part of the school uniform, and was not to be worn. A new female pupil joined the school. Before she joined, she and her parents signed a home-school agreement acknowledging that the school uniform policy had been explained to them, and that they would comply with it.

After she had been at the school for two years, the pupil began to wear a ‘purity ring’ as a symbol of her commitment to chastity before marriage. The head teacher told her that the ring was jewelry and was not permitted by the uniform code. He forbade her to wear it.

Human rights claim

The pupil’s father wrote to the head teacher claiming that the school’s refusal to allow her to wear the ring which, he argued, showed her commitment to abstinence ‘as an expression of her personal faith’, was in breach of her right to manifest her religion or belief contained in Article 9(1) of the European Convention of Human Rights as set out in Schedule 1 of Part 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998.

This provides that an individual has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and to manifest religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

The school argued that the ring was representative of a moral stance, and not a necessary symbol of Christian faith.

Judicial review

A judicial review upheld the school’s decision. It was common ground that the pupil sincerely held the belief that she should practice sexual restraint, and that the appropriate framework for sexual relations was within marriage.

The question was whether the wearing of the ring was an obligatory or necessary manifestation of her religious belief.

The Court ruled that:

  • Article 9 did not require that one should be allowed to manifest one’s religious belief at any time and place of one’s choosing
  • Article 9 did not protect every act motivated or inspired by a religion or belief in deciding whether a person’s conduct constituted manifesting a belief and practice for the purpose of Article 9 it was necessary first to identify the nature and scope of the belief
  • if the belief took the form of a perceived obligation to act in a specific way, then doing that act pursuant to that belief was itself a manifestation of that belief in practice
  • in every case the court had to have regard to the applicant’s seriousness, coherence and consistency

Not an obligation

The court held that the ring was not a religious artefact. Whatever it was intended to symbolize, it was a piece of jewelry. The wearing of it was not intimately linked to the pupil’s belief in chastity before marriage. This belief did not oblige her to wear it. Indeed, she did not suggest that she was so obliged. For these reasons, the school was not in breach of Article 9.

Her freedom to manifest religion or belief had not been interfered with, because she had voluntarily accepted the school’s uniform policy, and because there were other ways for her to practice her belief.

Facts and common sense

This seems to be a common sense decision. Its interest lies in the fact that it is the first Article 9 case to involve the Christian religion. The Begum and R v Y School cases involved Muslim dress (jilbab and niqab respectively).

In each case, the court first has to find the facts. There may, for example, be a distinction between the religious obligation for a Jew to cover his head while praying, and the importance an individual Christian attaches to a non-obligatory symbol such as the ring in this case.

Guidance

The DfES has issued a consultation document (now closed) to enable it to provide clearer guidance on formulating uniform policy. The document emphasizes the importance of consultation, the requirement to consider the needs of particular groups, and the importance of documenting consultation.

The Muslim Council of Britain has published Meeting the needs of Muslim pupils in state schools, which explains what schools should consider when formulating a uniform policy.

Michael Segal is a district judge in the family division of the High Court

Category: