Are Parochial Schools 'Racist'?

A decision has been handed down in the British Court of Appeal that sets a monumental precedent for those wishing to place their children in a faith-based school. Reading this sorry saga, Americans will be grateful for separation of church and state and for the independence afforded parochial schools.

The British school crisis started this way: one of two couples whose children were rejected by the Jewish Free School in 2007 went straight to the High Court because in one case the rejection was based on a view that the mother had “stopped living an Orthodox lifestyle.” Mr. Justice Munby ruled that the school’s right to determine admission criteria was as valid as that of Christian or Islamic schools and their being censured could sabotage “the admission arrangements in a very large number of faith schools of many different faiths and denominations.” The decision was appealed.

Putting aside the intricacies of Jewish religious law, this story is an intriguing one because this summer Lord Justices Sedley and Rimer and Lady Justice Smith of the Court of Appeal have handed down a decision saying that the criteria for admitting a child to the Jewish school are in breach of the Race Relations Act. The chief rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, has interpreted this as a condemnation of Jewish ecclesiastical regulations as “racist.” He said, “Jews have been in Britain for 353 years and the JFS in existence since 1732. In all those years the same principle has applied. … We extend Jewish education to Jews. … It applies to all Jewish schools, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. … Now an English court has declared this rule racist and since this is an essential element of Jewish law, it is in effect declaring Judaism racist.”

The Court of Appeal is saying that religious criteria violate the same laws as those laid down against racial discrimination. In other words, if you want your kid to go to Catholic school or some other faith establishment, effectively the very concept of a single-faith environment smacks of racism.

The uproar this story has caused in Britain has been something to behold and has even made its way into the columns of the mainstream newspapers, as anguished commentators write about the crisis. JFS is an outstanding state-funded school that has enjoyed a national rating in the top one percent in the scholastic excellence tables, but the judge in question is saying that taxpayers should not be footing the bill for a “racist” entry system. This reverberates not just with Jewish establishments but with Muslim and Christian schools. So -- is it reasonable for a Jewish or Muslim family to expect their children, if they so wish, to be able to observe halal and kashrut in early childhood? Once they get to Oxford or Harvard they will be exposed to bacon sandwiches and alcohol, but in their formative years many feel they have a right to reassurance that their religious beliefs will be respected in a supervised school environment.

Equally so, Christian children are entitled to an education structured in Catholic, Protestant, or other denominational tenets and need not be constrained by having to worry about others’ religious beliefs. In other words, if Catholic or Protestant children want to bring ham sandwiches to school or sing about Jesus, they have a right to their observances with their own flock, rather than being forced by a judge to “tackle racism” and mingle with non-Christians who, in turn, could be miserable too.