High court upholds top London school’s ban on prayer rituals

<span>Michaela community school in Brent, north-west London.</span><span>Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Michaela community school in Brent, north-west London.Photograph: James Veysey/Rex/Shutterstock

A high court decision to uphold a prayer ban at one of the highest performing state schools in England has been welcomed by Rishi Sunak and Kemi Badenoch, who described it as a “victory against activists trying to subvert our public institutions”.

The case against Michaela community school in Brent, north-west London, which is famous for its strict discipline code, was brought by a Muslim pupil, known only as TTT in court proceedings, who claimed the ban was discriminatory and breached her right to religious freedom.

In a written judgment handed down on Tuesday, Mr Justice Linden dismissed the pupil’s arguments against the prayer ban on all key grounds.

Related: Michaela school will keep its prayer ban – but as a Muslim teacher I know it doesn’t have to be this way | Nadeine Asbali

Commenting in a post on X, Badenoch, the equalities minister, said: “No pupil has the right to impose their views on an entire school community in this way. The Equality Act is a shield, not a sword and teachers must not be threatened into submission.”

Her comments were later criticised by a senior Muslim leader who accused her of sensationalising the case, while the Runnymede Trust, an independent race equality thinktank, warned the ruling set a dangerous precedent.

Also on X, the trust posted: “It targets Muslim students and cannot be removed from the ramping up of Prevent and recent govt extremism definition. No child should be policed for the peaceful practice of their faith.”

The judgment followed a two-day hearing in January at the high court in London, which heard the prayer ban was introduced in March last year by the school’s founder and former government social mobility tsar, Katharine Birbalsingh, after the school found itself the target of death and bomb threats over its approach to religious observance.

Birbalsingh, who is often called “Britain’s strictest headteacher”, defended the policy, arguing it was vital in order to “maintain a successful learning environment where children of all races and religion can thrive”.

However, the pupil claimed the prayer ban had fundamentally changed how she felt about being a Muslim in the UK. It was “like somebody saying they don’t feel like I properly belong here”, the court heard. She also argued that the ban “uniquely” affected her faith due to its ritualised nature, and that Michaela’s policy on prayer was the “kind of discrimination which makes religious minorities feel alienated from society”.

Linden ruled the prayer ban did not interfere with the pupil’s religious freedom as they could have moved to another school that allowed prayer at lunchtime and said it was justified, given the secular ethos of the school.

He added: “The disadvantage to Muslim pupils at the school caused by the prayer ritual policy is in my view outweighed by the aims which it seeks to promote in the interests of the school community as a whole, including Muslim pupils.”

The prime minister’s spokesperson said: “The PM welcomes the judgment. The Michaela community school is an outstanding school with a history of excellent outcomes for pupils. The government has always been clear that heads are best placed to take decisions on what is permitted in our schools. And this judgment supports that.”

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Wales, told the PA news agency he was disappointed the court had failed to defend a “very well-established British principle of freedom of religion”.

“It’s not looking for preferential treatment, it’s looking for fairness in schools. It’s looking for the basic religious freedoms which have long been a part of the British public sphere.”

Commenting on Badenoch’s statement, he said: “I think unfortunately the minister’s comments are sensationalising this case and playing into a culture war and a rhetoric which doesn’t reflect the reality of what’s happening on the ground.”

After the judgment, the pupil, who cannot be named for legal reasons, said she was disappointed, but added: “Even though I lost, I still feel that I did the right thing in seeking to challenge the ban. I tried my best, and was true to myself and my religion. Being involved in this case has not been easy for me. My main focus now is my GCSEs.”

The pupil’s mother, who also cannot be named, said: “I’m profoundly dismayed by the case’s outcome. The case was rooted in the understanding that prayer isn’t just a desirable act for us – it’s an essential element that shapes our lives as Muslims.”

Birbalsingh welcomed the court’s decision as a victory for all schools. She said: “A school should be free to do what is right for the pupils it serves. Schools should not be forced by one child and her mother to change its approach simply because they have decided they don’t like something.”

She warned against a false narrative about Muslims being an oppressed minority at Michaela. “They are, in fact, the largest group. Those who are most at risk are other minorities and Muslim children who are less observant. If parents do not like what Michaela is, they do not need to send their children to us. Can it be right for a family to receive £150,000 of taxpayer-funded legal aid to bring a case like this?”

A representative for the family said Birbalsingh’s figure was incorrect and the capped legal aid costs were “a fraction” of that sum.

The case could have implications for other state schools in England amid renewed discussion about whether faith and religion should have any role in the education system.

Humanists UK chief executive, Andrew Copson, said: “Today’s high court judgment requires serious thinking from the government about how to protect the child’s freedom of religion or belief while also making sure our education system is fair and inclusive to all. Schools shouldn’t be left alone to deal with this.”