Now that religious schools in Australia are being funded to the tune of more than $5 billion in direct grants of public money and many billions more through indirect taxation expenditures or exemptions, it is time that they became public schools.

The first step in this direction should be the abolition of religious, ethnic, and any other tests for enrolment of children, as well as  employment of principals, teachers, bursars and any other employee. This would respect separation of religion and the state which is currently trotted out by religious men and women only when it suits them.

Readers who think that such a scenario is unrealistic in the Australian context, might be interested in a recent British case. It raises the issue of racial as distinct from religious discrimination, but indicates concern at the judicial level about the ‘openness’ of ‘faith schools’.

The Guardian newspaper of 22 December 2009 contains an interesting report on a ‘faith schools’ test case. It informs readers that one of Britain's most successful faith schools has recently lost its appeal to the supreme court to overturn a ruling that it had racially discriminated against a 12-year-old boy.

In a landmark legal decision, judges at the supreme court found the Jewish Free School, a comprehensive in north-west London, had broken the law by refusing to admit the boy, known as M. It had denied the boy, who is a practising Jew, a place because it has twice as many applicants as it can take and prioritises children whose mothers are recognised as Jewish by the chief rabbi.

M's mother converted from Catholicism to Judaism under a non-Orthodox authority, which means she is not recognised as Jewish by the chief rabbi. The chief rabbi only recognises children as Jewish if he recognises their mothers as Jewish.

M's father took the school to court claiming racial discrimination. In June, the court of appeal ruled in his favour. It said the school's policy amounted to racial discrimination because it prioritised applications from children with Jewish mothers.

But the school appealed and took the case to the supreme court. Critics say today's ruling has meant secular jurists are deciding who is Jewish and who is not.

Lawyers said it was the most controversial ruling since the supreme court was created in October.The supreme court judges ruled by a majority of five to four that the school had "directly discriminated against M on grounds of his ethnic origins" and was in breach of the Race Relations act.

M's father: "I believe it's important for people to know that the same Race Relations act that provides such valued protection for Jews, as well as others, from ill-judged or misguided prejudices also provides for the fair and equal treatment of all children within our education system.

"It is very important to see that this essential protection was not mistakenly discarded by divisive views which can naturally occur from time to time within all communities. The Jewish community, which has long endeavoured to enshrine fairness and care for others, will be relieved at heart that this minor discord will be put aside and that we, like all God's children and people of true feeling, can pull together again and work to make a better and fairer world for all."

It is interesting to note the response of different groups to the ruling. The religious leaders resented secular intrusion upon their powers. In other words, they wanted public money without any strings attached.

The United Synagogue, which represents Orthodox Jews in the UK, said it was "extremely disappointed" with the ruling which "interfered" with the "Torah-based imperative on us to educate Jewish children, regardless of their background".

Its president, Simon Hochhauser, said: "Essentially, we must now apply a non-Jewish definition of who is Jewish." Hochhauser said there was no further legal redress in the UK and that the battle had reached an end, but he had no regrets about pursuing the case. "These are matters of principle. If we don't fight this, what do we fight? These are germane to everything we believe in.

Representatives of secular bodies saw it differently:

Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said the verdict confirmed that "no school will be allowed to discriminate based on the ethnic origin of an individual".

The British Humanist Association said the verdict should trigger an investigation into all state faith schools' admissions policies. Andrew Copson, the BHA's director of education and public affairs, said: "There's absolutely no reason why what is essentially a public service should be denied to any children, whatever their beliefs or the beliefs of their parents."

Rabbi Jonathan Romain, chair of the Accord Coalition, which campaigns for inclusive education, said he hoped the ruling would serve as a "wake-up call" to faith schools to stop discriminatory policies.

As in Australia, a third of England's schools are faith schools. There are rumblings of discontent about their enrolment policies. Australian policy movers and shakers tend to slavishly follow British example. Perhaps it is time the enrolment policies of our ‘faith’ or ‘church’ schools were questioned.

 With shekels should come shackles.






Listen to the DOGS program

3CR, 855 on the A.M. dial

12 Noon Saturdays