By Liz Stephens
The qualification for admission to the Jews' Free School (JFS) is a test of ethnicity and not religion and is therefore in breach of the Race Relations Act, the Court of Appeal ruled today.
In a landmark decision on the admissions criteria used by faith schools, the Court of Appeal found that the Jewish school, which prioritised applications from children with Jewish mothers, discriminated on grounds of descent rather than religious practice and this amounted to racial discrimination.
The controversial ruling overturns a previous judgement in favour of the school regarding a case brought on behalf of a 12-year-old boy known as M, who was refused admission to the school in North London.
Although the boy regularly attends a progressive synagogue, he was denied a place at the school because his mother had converted to Judaism in a procedure not recognised by the Chief Rabbi.
Speaking from the Court today, Lord Justice Sedley said "It appears clear to us. that Jews constitute a racial group defined principally by ethnic origin and additionally by conversion".
"To discriminate against a person on the ground that he or someone else either is or is not Jewish is therefore to discriminate against him on racial grounds", he added.
Both the government and the United Synagogue had strongly contested the claim that the school's admissions policy was discriminatory.
Faith schools are exempted from the law prohibiting discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, to enable them to provide education in line with their religious beliefs.
The British Humanist Association (BHA), which intervened in both the High Court and subsequent Court of Appeal case against the school, welcomed the result.
Andrew Copson, BHA director of education and public affairs, said: "JFS will admit pupils that are not religiously Jewish - they can be atheists or Muslims or Christians - as long as their mother is Jewish. It is that criterion of ethnicity that is contrary to the Race Relations Act."
"All state-maintained schools should be held to the same standards of equality and non-discrimination in the way they operate," he added.
The boy's legal team applauded the judgment saying: "It is unlawful for a child's ethnic origins to be used as the criterion for entry to a school. Such a practice is even more unacceptable in the case of a comprehensive school funded by the taxpayer."
However, chief rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, condemned the ruling, said the principles underlying membership of the Jewish faith had "nothing to do with race and everything to do with religion".
JFS said it was "very disappointed" with the court's decision, claiming it would "seriously undermine the Jewish ethos of the school". It confirmed it would seek leave to appeal.