Supreme Court: London Jewish school discriminated

London, UK - A Jewish school discriminated against a child when it refused to admit him because it did not recognize his mother as Jewish, Britain's highest court ruled Wednesday.

Critics said the decision interfered with longstanding Jewish tradition and imposed secular standards on who belonged to the faith.

London's prestigious JFS, formerly known as the Jews' Free School, gave preference to children who were Jewish according to principles defined by Britain's chief rabbi.

The 12-year-old boy, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, was not given priority because although his father is Jewish by birth, his mother converted at a progressive synagogue not recognized by Orthodox Judaism. The chief rabbi did not recognize her conversion, and the boy therefore was not recognized as Jewish.

Five judges of the nine-member Supreme Court ruled that the school's policy amounted to racial discrimination, upholding an earlier ruling by the Court of Appeal.

The lower court decided that because Jews are defined as an ethnic group in British law, denying a child admission because his mother is not Jewish constituted racial discrimination. The school appealed that ruling.

Orthodox Jews and the school said they were disappointed by Wednesday's judgment. The school said it now would admit students according to tests of their religious practice, such as how often they attend synagogue, their level of Jewish education and family communal activity.

Nonetheless, the school argues that such tests are irrelevant to Jewish law. Orthodox Jews say anyone with a Jewish mother is a Jew by birth, regardless of whether they actively observe the faith.

"Essentially we must now apply a non-Jewish definition of who is Jewish," said United Synagogue president Simon Hochhauser in a statement.

"The closeness of the court's decision underlines the inherent difficulty in applying the complex modern law of discrimination to an ancient religion," he said.

Wednesday's judgment ordered the school to pay most of the family's legal bill, which was not specified.

David Pannick, the lawyer representing the school, had argued that the boy, identified only by the letter M, was rejected because of a religious disagreement, not because of his ethnic origins.

The fact that the boy wasn't admitted "is not on the ground of M's ethnic origins. It is on the ground of a religious dispute between rabbis about who is a Jew," Pannick said.

Britain's chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, said the case raised complex questions about British law and Jewish identity that "require careful reflection and consultation."