Daily Archives: February 22, 2010

An issue of Religion or Race? A UK Court decision

Here is a story that I missed back in December, but picked up due to a reference in Joseph Bottum’s Public Square column in First Things. Bottum had written:

With the way things are going in Britain, though, that is by no means assured. A few weeks ago, the U.K. Supreme Court ruled “that the admissions criteria of the Jewish Free School, which gave preference in the event of oversubscription to children who are Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law (either by descent or conversion), were in the definition of the 1976 Race Relations Act, directly racially discriminatory” (from the press release of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks). It’s been decades since the U.N. passed a resolution characterizing Zionism as racism; by their logic, if not by intent, the highest court in Britain has now all but defined Judaism itself as racism.

Here is the full story as it appeared on the JTA (Jewish News) website:

Supreme Court: London Jewish school discriminated
December 16, 2009

LONDON (JTA) — A Jewish school in London discriminated against a child denied entrance because his mother was not recognized as Jewish, Britain’s Supreme Court said.

The court on Wednesday narrowly rejected an appeal by the Jewish Free School against an earlier ruling stating that its admission policy was illegal and that the North London school broke the Race Relations Act.

An Appeals Court had ruled in favor of a 12-year-old boy, known as M, who claimed that the school’s rejection of his application was discriminatory. M’s father is Jewish and his mother converted to Judaism, but not through an Orthodox synagogue. The school rejected his application because he is not considered Jewish according to the office of the Chief Rabbi.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said the school’s admission criteria are discriminatory on the grounds of ethnicity. The ruling means that Jewish schools in Britain can no longer base their admission on whether a child is Jewish according to the Orthodox tradition.

The justices made it clear that they do not think that the school or the chief rabbi acted in a racist way, adding that they are free from moral blame.

The school said it was disappointed by the court’s decision but would work out a new admission policy for 2011.

British Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said the closeness of the decision illustrates the complexity of the case, adding that “I welcome the justices’ indication of the good faith in which the United Synagogue, the London Beit Din and our office had acted.”

Rabbi Tony Bayfield, the head of the Movement for Reform Judaism, was pleased with the decision.

“We are delighted that the admissions policy of the JFS, which actively delegitimizes our converts and our rabbis, has been confirmed as unlawful and unacceptable by the highest court in the land,” Bayfield said.

He did express reservations as to the applicability of the Race Relations Act to the issue of Jewish status and to the involvement of the courts in matters that should be dealt with by the Jewish community.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews was disappointed by the court’s decision, saying in a statement released Wednesday that “We will be exploring, as a matter of urgency and after consultation across the community, the possibility of a legislative change to restore the right of Jewish schools of all denominations to determine for themselves who qualifies for admission on the basis of their Jewish status, which we consider to be a fundamental right for our community and one with which the members of the Supreme Court had great sympathy.”

It seems to me that this could be an intra-Jewish issue – a division of opinion between Reformed and Orthodox Jews – as some seem to welcome the decision and others seem to reject it. But it certainly does raise very interesting questions about religious freedom, self understanding of a racial group, and questions of racial discrimination – AND the place of the law in the whole mix.

Here is a comment from the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks, in an article titled “The Pope is right about the threat to freedom”:

That is why using the ideology of human rights to assault religion risks undermining the very foundation of human rights themselves. When a Christian airport worker is banned from wearing a cross, when a nurse is sacked after a role-play exercise in which he suggested that patients pray, when Roman Catholic adoption agencies are forced to close because they do not place children for adoption with same-sex couples and when a Jewish school is told that its religious admissions policy is, not in intent but in effect, racist, we are in dangerous territory indeed.

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