R v Michaela Community Schools Trust: Human Rights and Freedom of Religion in the UK

by | May 16, 2024

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About Zaki Rehman

Zaki Rehman is a DPhil Student in the Faculty of History at the University of Oxford, working on global Islam, religious freedom, and human rights.

The relationship between Islam, religious freedom, and human rights has long been a subject of debate in Britain. However, the significance of the latest instalment in this saga, the judgment of R v Michaela Community Schools Trust, lies not in Islam’s relationship with secularism or human rights but instead in illustrating the incoherence of British ideas on freedom of religion.

The issue began when Muslims students at Michaela School started to pray in the playground during lunch times in March 2023. Michaela responded by banning all ritual prayer, with the justification of preventing segregation between different religious groups. One affected student responded by taking the school to the High Court, arguing that the ban violated sections 85(2)(d) and/or (f) of the Equality Act 2010, and Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), concerning freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Mr Justice Linden found in favour of Michaela on 16 April 2024.

Regarding Article 9, he highlighted the distinction in the right between the freedom to hold belief, and the freedom to manifest belief in actions such as prayer. Although the former is absolute, the latter is subject to conditions. These conditions were centred in the judgment, which stated that ‘the claimant 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’ [176]. The judgment has been criticised for its limited interpretation of Article 9, leading to the suggestion that future claims may more successfully be brought under the Equality Act 2010. It has also been criticised within British Muslim communities, being seen as proof of the bias of British secularism.

To academics, this bias comes as little surprise. There is a vast literature on how secularism has been used to discriminate against Muslims. The shortcomings of the ECHR and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in this regard are well documented. For example, Linde Lindkvist has shown how Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on which Article 9 ECHR is based, was formulated through the lobbying of Christian missionaries who were most concerned with protecting their ability to propagate, particularly in Muslim spaces. What this blog emphasises, though, is not only that the human right of religious freedom has historically disadvantaged Muslims, but also the broader point that such ideas have always been historically constructed to the privilege of some and the detriment of others.

In fact, Samuel Moyn has shown that the aspects of Article 9 which are now used to discriminate against Muslims were first formulated to counter not Islam, but Communism. With the constructed and often exclusionary nature of secularism well established, the problem of creating laws governing religious freedom that are properly egalitarian have long troubled academics. From this perspective, the significance of Justice Linden’s judgment lies in his argument that the school’s prayer ban was justified because students could go elsewhere. The implication of this argument is that each non-faith state school in Britain should decide their own rules on the manifestation of religion, which will be lawful so long as they are clearly stated and consistent.

Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, confirmed as much, responding to the judgment by declaring that ‘I have always been clear that head teachers are best placed to make decisions in their school’. If this is the case, then how should we think about freedom of religion in the UK as a whole, and what role does the State play in defining and enforcing it? The answer is inconclusive. Despite frequent calls for national guidance from a wide array of organisations, both faith-based and secular, the British State provides no coherent guidelines on religious manifestation in schools. In fact, the only consistent message is that schools are obliged to provide a daily opportunity for communal worship that should be broadly Christian in nature.

All at once, then, the British State proudly claims to uphold the human right of religious freedom, mandates Christian worship, and delegates the decision-making on religious manifestation in schools to individual institutions. This incoherence is an issue not just for Muslims, but all concerned with the role of religion in British public life.

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