Here’s an unusual case. Muslim parents are suing a public school in south London for refusing to allow their nine-year-old daughter to wear a head scarf to class. That’s not so unusual in itself. Law school casebooks are full of cases in which parents sue public schools for failing to accommodate their children’s religious practices. What makes this case unusual is that the public school in question, St. Cyprian’s in Croydon, is an Orthodox Christian school.
To Americans, faith-based public schools are unfamiliar. As Ashley Berner explains here, however, such schools are common in England. According to the official government website, roughly seven thousand “maintained,” as in publicly maintained, “faith schools” exist, the large majority of which are affiliated with the Church of England. St. Cyprian’s is affiliated with the Greek Orthodox Church—it is the only Greek Orthodox school in England, in fact. As a faith-based school, St. Cyprian’s may give priority in admission to Greek Orthodox students, though by law it must admit students of other faiths if places remain unfilled. As far as I can tell, like other public schools, St. Cyprian’s may adopt its own school uniform policy, subject to very broad guidelines.
I’m not sure how the English courts will resolve this dispute. But the whole situation is puzzling and it’s a shame things have come so far. It’s odd, in the circumstances, that the parents would insist on a Greek Orthodox school for their daughter. If it’s so important to them that she maintain Muslim practices, why put her in a school in which a different religion is pervasive? Isn’t that a bit unreasonable, and unfair to her? The school says the parents petitioned to send their daughter to St. Cyprian’s, and that the school’s rule against head scarves was explained to them before she matriculated. St. Cyprian’s has very high academic ratings; perhaps that explains why the parents are so eager to have their daughter attend. Still, it’s all rather odd.
On the other hand, the school’s position is puzzling as well. There’s nothing in Orthodoxy that forbids the wearing of head scarves; in fact, some Orthodox women wear head scarves in church. Perhaps St. Cyprian’s is concerned that a visible non-Orthodox presence would dilute the school’s identity. That’s a valid concern, in my opinion. And I can understand how school officials might think they’ve been sandbagged by the parents in this case. If the parents knew about the rule against head scarves before their daughter matriculated, why are they complaining now? But the law requires St. Cyprian’s to admit non-Orthodox students if it has places for them, and it doesn’t seem tenable to admit such students and then forbid them from wearing their religious attire. Anyway, mightn’t it be better, in the circumstances, to allow this student to wear her head scarf? What would demonstrate more effectively the essential nature of Christianity—its willingness, even joy, in serving everyone and anyone?
Mark Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University.