Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

‘The Prayer Ban at Michaela Community School Will Not Set a Landmark Precedent’ 

The CEO of the Islamophobia Response Unit sets out the significance of the High Court’s ruling being made in a very specific context of one school’s strict behavioural regime

Photo: Ahmet Cigsar/Alamy

Don’t miss a story

The High Court’s ruling that a ban on ritualistic prayer at Michaela Community School in Wembley is lawful – following a legal challenge by a Muslim student – has created a storm of controversy in recent days.

Muslims and human rights advocates have bemoaned the outcome, with many seeing it as a flagrant attack on the right to manifest one’s religious belief in public, particularly if you’re a Muslim.

Those on the right of the Conservative Party have celebrated the ruling as a win for ‘British values’ – a concept they seem to believe excludes Islam.

Despite their differences, there is one idea that these groups share: the belief that this is a landmark case that establishes a strong legal precedent.

However, as a lawyer with 20 years’ experience and the CEO of the Islamophobia Response Unit, I argue that this is not the case. In fact, I believe that this ruling will soon, and for good reason, fade into distant memory. 

Katharine Birbalsingh, founder and headteacher of Michaela Community School. Photo: Paul Davey/Alamy

Last year, a Muslim pupil at Michaela Community School decided to challenge the school’s ban on ritualistic prayer, arguing that it indirectly discriminated against the school’s Muslim cohort, which makes up around 50% of its 700 students.

Some right-wing commentators celebrated the prayer ban. Some also praised headteacher Katherine Birbalsingh for imposing it.

The pupil’s case was, from the beginning, a very narrow one.

Although Muslims are required to pray five times per day, she accepted that strict school rules meant that she would not be able to fulfil this obligation. Nevertheless, she argued that the ban on ritualistic prayer violated her right to religious belief under the European Convention on Human Rights. That it indirectly discriminated against Muslim pupils under the Equality Act of 2010. And that it failed to have ‘due regard’ to the need to eliminate discrimination, also under the Equality Act.

In the end, the court surprisingly rejected all three of the pupil’s claims, essentially on the basis that she could, if she chose to, attend a different school that did not hinder her religious practices.

The court said that the pupil “at the very least impliedly accepted, when she enrolled at the school, that she would be subject to restrictions on her ability to manifest her religion”. But this was a strange argument to make considering that the ban was imposed after the girl enrolled at the school.

Michaela Community School’s well-documented strict behavioural regime is so unique to that institution that other schools in England and Wales simply could not rely upon it to deny prayer facilities to their pupils.

The High Court heard an abundance of evidence detailing the strict policies that provided the context making the prayer ban possible. To give just a few examples, pupils are required to move around the school’s building, and enter and exit all rooms, in a single-file formation.


Michael Gove Expected to Drop Plans to Put Muslim Council of Britain in List of ‘Extremist’ Groups

Exclusive: Leaked plans reveal which groups could be labeled ‘extremist’ by the Government

Michaela Community School also maintains a ‘rule of four no more’, which means that pupils are not permitted to socialise in groups of more than four.

Lunch break is set at a rigid 25 minutes, and pupils are not allowed to move freely around the school premises during this time.

Constraints on space mean that pupils are not able to move to their next lesson at once, so that the start and end times of each lesson are staggered on a minute-by-minute basis, with movement around the school being heavily coordinated.

These examples are just the tip of the iceberg of what can quite comfortably be described as draconian behavioural regulations. Given these rigid demands on pupils’ time and movements, it is not difficult to see how finding time to engage in group-based, ritualistic prayer at specific times throughout the day – as is required by Islamic precepts – becomes very difficult, if not impossible. 

The school contends that these rules are the beating heart of the school’s ethos. This point matters greatly because, if the court had ruled in favour of the girl who brought the case, this would have meant the removal of the prayer ban. Such a decision would have caused widespread disruption to the school’s rigorous – and, some might argue, excessive – behavioural codes of conduct. Muslim students needing to pray would have to violate Birbalsingh’s policies aimed at regimenting student movement around the school.

The court took all of this into consideration and the judgment’s balance tipped in favour of the school. But nowhere else in Britain are you likely to find another case of this nature. It is therefore not a ‘landmark’ case because the deciding factor largely came down to the history of Michaela Community School’s uniquely austere rules.

Rather than standing as an example for others to draw upon in order to ban prayer facilities, this case and this school stand very much alone.

Majid Iqbal is the CEO of the Islamophobia Response Unit

Written by

This article was filed under
, , , , ,