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U.K. Jewish school policy ruled discriminatory

Britain's top court was accused of interfering in religious matters after it ruled on Wednesday that a Jewish school was guilty of discrimination.
/ Source: Reuters

Britain's top court was accused of interfering in religious matters after it ruled on Wednesday that a Jewish school was guilty of discrimination by refusing entry to a boy whose mother was a Jew by conversion, not birth.

The Supreme Court said the policy employed by the popular JFS school in London broke race laws by using ethnicity to decide which pupils to admit.

It was the latest in a number of decisions that have brought religious principles into conflict with secular laws in Britain.

Equality campaigners welcomed the verdict, but some Jewish groups said it showed the difficulty of applying modern law to 3,500 years of Jewish tradition.

They said the ruling, passed by five votes to four, would affect not only on Jewish schools but the whole community, as it meant judges were in effect deciding who was or was not Jewish.

"Essentially we must now apply a 'non-Jewish definition of who is Jewish'," said Simon Hochhauser, president of the United Synagogue.

The case was brought after the school refused to admit a boy, known as M, whose father was a practicing Jew and whose mother had converted to Judaism at a non-orthodox synagogue.

The over-subscribed school gave precedence to children recognized as ethnically Jewish by the Office of the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the Commonwealth.

This stipulates that a person is Jewish if they are descended through the maternal line from a woman who is Jewish, or if they have undergone an orthodox Jewish conversion course.

British faith schools are allowed to select pupils on grounds of religious belief, but the Supreme Court decided that JFS had breached the Race Relations Act as it had failed to demonstrate that its ethnic-based policy was proportionate.

However, the judges said JFS had not been racist in a pejorative sense.

Law versus practice
Russell Kett, chairman of the school's governors, said it had wanted its test of 'Jewishness' to be based "solely on orthodox Jewish religious law, rather than on a series of factors which themselves have no relevance under Jewish law but which seem to support the notion of a test of Jewish practice required by the English legal system."

However, Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of the "progressive" Liberal Judaism organization, said Jewish identity was "primarily about thought and deed, rather than biology."

"We have consistently opposed the politically motivated admissions policy of the Jewish Free School (JFS) and are saddened that the board of governors of JFS, along with others in the community, have created this self-inflicted wound."

Of Britain's estimated 300,000 Jews, about three-quarters are affiliated to orthodox synagogues, the rest to progressive ones.

Broadly, orthodox Jews hold strictly to ancient Jewish law, while progressives follow more modern interpretations.

Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, said the closeness of the court's judgment showed how complex the issue was.

He welcomed a suggestion by the judges that the law could be changed to allow Jewish schools to operate a different admissions policy that addressed the issues of religious law.

In 2007, the government refused to exempt Roman Catholic adoption agencies from anti-discrimination laws that they said could force them, against their beliefs, to place children with gay couples.

On Tuesday, a registrar who was fired for refusing to carry out gay civil partnership ceremonies because they clashed with her Christian beliefs lost an appeal against her dismissal.