U.K. Court: Jewish School Racially Discriminatory for Excluding Convert's Son

The British supreme court ruled yesterday that a London Jewish school was guilty of racial discrimination for refusing to admit a boy whose mother was a Jew by conversion and not by birth.

The Jewish community in the U.K. is up in arms over the ruling, claiming it constitutes a gross interference in determining who is a Jew.

The nine judges sitting on Britain's highest judicial body said the popular JFS school in north London broke the law by using ethnicity in admissions.

However, they said the faith-based school, which has received outstanding ratings by government inspectors, had not been racist in a pejorative sense.

The court dismissed the school's appeal of a lower instance's ruling. Equality campaigners and the boy's parents welcomed the verdict, which means Jewish schools in Britain can no longer base admissions on ethnicity.

But Jewish leaders said the verdict, passed by a narrow five-to-four majority, showed the difficulty in applying modern law to 3,500 years of Jewish tradition, and warned it could have an impact on other Jewish organizations.

The case arose after the school refused to admit a 12-year-old boy whose father was a practicing Jew and whose mother had converted to Judaism at a non-Orthodox synagogue. This conversion process is unrecognized by the Office of the Chief Rabbi of Britain, and the school rejected the boy's application saying that his mother was not Jewish, and therefore the boy was not either.

The school, which is over-subscribed, gives precedence to children recognized as ethnically Jewish by the Office of the Chief Rabbi. The school is one of four dozen state-funded Jewish faith schools in Britain.

The family went to court and several instances rejected the parents' suit.

In July, however, an appeals court overturned the previous rulings, stating, "The admissions policy should be based on the faith itself, not origin."

Backed by the Jewish community, JFS appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled yesterday that the school had discriminated against the boy on the basis of his ethnic origin.

Russell Kett, chairman of governors at JFS, formerly the Jews' Free School, said they were disappointed by the decision.

Britain's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said the implications of the verdict would need careful consideration.

"The closeness of the court's judgment indicates how complex this case was, both in English law and debated issues of Jewish identity," he said in a statement.

Trevor Phillips, the chairman of Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission, which intervened in the case, said they had not wanted to interfere.

"The commission believed that it had to intervene in order to preserve the same protection against racial discrimination for Jews as for anyone else - not least at a time when anti-Semitic groups are active across Europe," he said.