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School prayer ban a step too far

02 February 2024

Adopting a rigidly secular approach is problematic, argues Nicholas Reed Langen


A MUSLIM pupil at the Michaela Community School, a comprehensive in north London, began to pressure other Muslims girls last year to wear a headscarf or to pray in the playground. Otherwise, she said, they would be “bad” Muslims.

As a result, the students in this multifaith, multi-ethnic school drifted into factions. By trying to push her fellow Muslims towards more conservative Islamic practices, the pupil helped to fracture the student body. Praying in the playground emphasised their differences rather than their commonalities.

Faced with complaints from some students and with growing divisions, the school’s solution was blunt: all visible manifestations of prayer were banned by the governors. Now that faith has been pushed into the background, the school has reported that these break-time divisions have faded away. It has “returned to normal” and is once more a “lovely and happy school”.

Unlike many of the other methods that Michaela embraces as part of its strict pedagogy, however, banning prayer is ethically and legally problematic.

Michaela, primarily as a result of its vocal founder and headmistress, Katherine Birbalsingh, has courted controversy since it was established in 2009. Its authoritarian approach forbids pupils’ gathering in groups greater than four, orders them to walk mutely in single file in the corridors between lessons, and requires them to deliver poetry by rote before the lunch break. But with these sacrifices come rewards. Michaela may be based in one of the most deprived boroughs in London, with 25 per cent of its cohort on free school meals, but its exam results put many fee-paying elite schools to shame. The consequence is that parents flock to it and pupils laud it.

YET, in trying to prohibit prayer in school, and in attempting to adopt an ostensibly secular approach, Ms Birbalsingh and the governors may have crossed a line. A Muslim student at the school has filed a claim against it, alleging that the ban on prayer in the playground discriminates against Muslims.

Unlike Christians, who are usually not mandated to pray in any particular way or at any particular time, most practising Muslims have prescribed times and forms of prayer. Christian students who wish to pray can still do so; they can sit quietly in the playground without there being any visible manifestation of prayer. But Muslim students cannot. Prayer mats are forbidden at the school, as is prostrating themselves on blazers (as some chose to do for a time), and nor is a chapel or quiet prayer room provided. Michaela’s governors — who preside over a Muslim-majority school — may have had no intent to discriminate, but that does not preclude there being discrimination.

Indirect discrimination such as this may be regrettable, but regrettable does not mean unlawful. Few rights are absolute; most, including freedom of religion, exist on a spectrum. Michaela — self-evidently, given its majority-Muslim cohort — does not prohibit students’ holding any religious belief (or none); nor does it stop its students from displaying outward signs of that belief: students are free to wear a headscarf or a cross or a kippah. They can be a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. What they cannot do is make a visible display of devotion that goes with that faith during the school day.

Compromises such as this are ubiquitous and necessary. Not many would accept a Muslim student’s interrupting lessons to conduct noon-day prayers, or a Roman Catholic student’s doing so to pray the Angelus. In schools — particularly secular ones — the priority is delivering a curriculum and educating the pupils, not addressing the state of their souls. But, while the school may not need to aid a student’s religious belief positively, it also has an obligation not to muzzle their religious belief unnecessarily either.

What the compromise hinges on is what it means to be necessary. Not only does any infringement on a right need to be underpinned by a good reason, but any limitation must go no further than is needed to fulfil that reason. In this instance, Michaela’s motivation is clearly valid. Allowing demonstrative prayer during recess and break time created division, upsetting the harmonious interfaith character of the school. Some Muslim girls felt pressured into adopting more conservative Islamic practices, such as wearing a headscarf, or into participating in group prayer. Banning open expressions of faith resolved this.

IT IS difficult, however, to imagine that in a school as rigorous and disciplined as Michaela, such an absolute approach was necessary. The school’s reputation is rooted in controlling and limiting unruly and disruptive behaviour. For a single girl (or even a number of them) to be able to alter other students’ behaviour so effectively that the only solution was to ban prayer outright would suggest either that she is astonishingly precocious or that Michaela’s staff aren’t all that they are cracked up to be. Forcing students to adopt religious practices is little more than bullying, and Michaela should have methods in place to deal with that. Prayer was not the issue here.

Absent Michaela’s reputation and notoriety, this case would have been kept to the back pages, if it made the press at all. Instead, it has leapt to the front pages of national broadsheets. It is not difficult to imagine that one of the school’s reasons for taking such a hard-line approach was to spark another battle in the culture war, showing itself as being at the forefront (as if there were any doubt) of the campaign for a conservative, traditional school system.

Regardless of the ultimate motivations, however, this may be a case where Birbalsingh has pushed Michaela’s rigour too far. Limiting students’ religious freedom in a school setting might be lawful, legitimate, and necessary. Banning their freedom to pray outright? Less so.

Nicholas Reed Langen is a writer on legal and constitutional affairs, a former Re:Constitution Fellow (2021-22), and editor of the LSE Public Policy Review.

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