US pledges to challenge court decision on JFS

There are “good prospects” of reversing the Court of Appeal ruling on Jewish schools, Simon Hochhauser, the president of the United Synagogue, declared this week.

He told an unusually well-attended meeting of the US Council on Monday: “It is the view of our legal advisers… if this case does get to the House of Lords, it has good prospects of being overturned.”

The Court of Appeal has now ordered JFS to reconsider whether to give a place to a 13-year old boy who was originally rejected two years ago.

His rejection sparked the legal action which led to last month’s court ruling that it was against the Race Relations Act for Jewish schools to admit children on the basis of parental descent.

The boy’s mother had been converted by a non-Orthodox rabbi and hence was not considered Jewish by the Office of the Chief Rabbi.

On Friday the court followed the judgment with an order that gave the school three weeks to make a decision. Lord Justice Sedley said, on behalf of the three judges: “We do not consider that to have to admit an additional pupil is likely to create any serious difficulty for the school.”
But although JFS has previously stated that it will contest the whole judgment, the Court of Appeal has, as expected, itself refused leave to appeal.

The school will now have to persuade the House of Lords directly to hear the case.

Lord Justice Sedley declared: “While we do not underestimate the significance of the court’s decision, we do not consider that it is a case of such manifest general importance, or indeed of such legal difficulty, that we ought to grant leave to appeal to the House of Lords. If petitioned, it will be for their Lordships to decide.”

Earlier this month the boy’s father said that his son still hoped to go to JFS. John Halford, of their solicitors, Bindmans, commented: “The court has given a short, common-sense judgment requiring JFS to give urgent consideration to admitting the child at the centre of this case in September.

"If it does, he will have missed two years of the Jewish education he seeks, but the school will at least have shown itself to be honourable enough not to put its concerns about the effects of the judgment over the interests of a vulnerable child.”

But council members of the United Synagogue — which is the foundation body of JFS and a number of other schools — voiced clear support for further legal challenge to the ruling.

Dr Hochhauser warned that although charities such as synagogues are exempt from the effects of the ruling, the situation might change.

“It may not be this year, it may not be next year, but the trend towards human rights legislation to widen such matters as anti-discrimination law might start to chip away at some of the exclusions of the Race Relations Act,” he said. “Unless this judgment is overturned, we may find ourselves with ramifications that move beyond the education sector.”

Unless the Lords decide otherwise, many Jewish schools will now have to rewrite their entry policies over the summer in time for next year, using religious practice rather than parentage as a criterion for choosing pupils.

Reform head Rabbi Tony Bayfield, in a written briefing for the movement this week, said that while it applauded the court’s ruling against JFS, the judges “unfortunately” had gone much further, “unwittingly” affecting more inclusive schools.

Applying a faith test to school entry “doesn’t fit Judaism,” he said. “It is not readily suited to the child of someone who rarely attends synagogue services but who devotes many hours to volunteering for Jewish Care or working on a Jewish social justice initiative or who is active in a communal leadership body.”

Overall, the ruling represented “a level of state interference in matters which should be our right to decide for ourselves,” he said. “We are very unhappy with state involvement in issues relating to membership of the Jewish community and the interrelationship between Jewish peoplehood and Jewish theology.”

The movement would therefore support any intervention by the Board of Deputies to the House of Lords, challenging “the wider ramification of the ruling”, he explained, although “not on the specifics of the JFS discrimination”.

While the policy of excluding the children of non-Orthodox converts from JFS had existed for a long time, he said, “it has recently been applied with greater and greater stringency… in a way that causes acute pain to individual families and is damaging to the British Jewish community as a whole.”

Last updated: 4:00pm, July 17 2009