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High Court decision: school policy prohibiting prayer did not breach human rights

10th July 2024

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The recent decision in the case of R (TTT) v Michaela Community Schools Trust [2024] found that the school’s policy, which prohibited on-site ritual prayer, did not amount to a breach of a student’s right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (“ECHR”) and was not considered to constitute indirect religious discrimination.

Pursuant to Article 9 of the ECHR, everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, which includes the right to manifest their religion or belief in worship, teaching, practise and observance.

This right is subject only to limitations prescribed and necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

Background

In this case, the claimant was a pupil at Micaela Community Schools Trust (“MCST”), a secular secondary school in London. MCST had around 700 pupils from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds. Around half of its pupils, including the claimant pupil, were Muslims. A key element of MCST’s “disciplinary ethos” was that teachers were “in unquestioned positions of authority over children”. It also “aggressively” promoted integration between pupils from different faiths, cultures and ethnic backgrounds, and minimised the social distinctions between them.

In March 2023, MCST prohibited pupils from performing prayer rituals on site. This policy was applied equally, regardless of religion. However, there was no evidence that pupils of any religion other than Islam wished to perform prayer rituals during the school day. The reason for the policy was to avoid division, which it was evidenced had begun to emerge at the school. Further, there was inadequate space for a prayer room and no available staff to supervise pupils.

Prior to the prayer policy being introduced, the pupil was subject to a two-day suspension for attempting to perform prayer on site with others and challenging a teacher about the issue. The pupil also received a five-day suspension for talking with another pupil about harming the school once the prayer policy was introduced.

The pupil in this matter argued that she should be able to perform duhr, a prayer which overlapped in the autumn and winter with the 50-minute-long school lunch break. It would require 25 minutes of her time during this period, and still allowed her 25 minutes for MCST’s designated “family lunch”. MCTS stated that the pupil was permitted to make up for missing duhr by performing qada prayers later in the day. However, the claimant pupil argued that qada was less meaningful and was intended as a form of forgiveness to make up for missed prayers.

The crux of the claim against MCST was that:

  • Its refusal to allow performance of duhr breached Article 9 of the ECHR
  • The prayer policy indirectly discriminated against Muslim pupils
  • MCST failed to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, to advance equality of opportunity and to foster good relations between Muslims and non-Muslims by implementing the prayer policy
  • The periods of suspension were procedurally unfair as she was not able to respond to provide her thoughts prior to the headteacher deciding to impose the suspensions.

Decision

The decision made by the High Court was to reject all of the grounds of the claim. It was not accepted that the pupil’s Article 9 rights had been interfered with; whilst Article 9 protects the freedom to manifest religious beliefs, it does not confer an absolute right to do so. By enrolling at MCST, a known secular school, the pupil had accepted that she would be subject to restrictions on her ability to manifest her religion.

Further, the pupil had not shown that there would be undue hardship or inconvenience if she had to move to a different school which permitted her to pray during the school day.

In reaching its decision as to whether there had been a breach of the pupil’s Article 9 rights, the court considered:

  • There was a rational connection between the prayer policy and MCST’s behavioural policy and team ethos; furthering the behavioural policy and team policy were legitimate aims
  • There was no less intrusive measure that could have been introduced
  • The vast majority of Muslim parents and pupils were not sufficiently concerned with the issue to raise it with MCST, and the prayer policy only affected Muslim pupils in the winter months when qada could be used as an alternative.

In terms of the claim that the school had indirectly discriminated against the pupil by implementing the prayer policy, the court considered that the pupil had been subjected to a detriment because she was prevented from onsite prayers at school. However, it was a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, and any disadvantage to Muslim pupils was outweighed by the aims to promote in the interests of the school community as a whole, including Muslim pupils.

When considering whether there had been procedural unfairness relating to the periods of suspension, the court noted that MCST’s exclusion policy indicated pupil voice would not normally be called for where a suspension was for a period of less than five days. However, the court did accept that MCST should have sought the pupil’s voice in respect of the five-day suspension to ensure fairness.

Practical steps

The outcome of this case is an important reminder that schools are able to implement policies which may be considered to indirectly discriminate against certain pupils where the policy is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

Fostering good relations between all pupils is a legitimate, and essential, aim for all schools to have. Where a school considers that certain allowances made for pupils may be causing division between pupils, steps may be taken by the school to ensure that good relations continue to be fostered and promoted.

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