Monday, July 28, 2008

Fourteen-year-old Sikh girl wins High Court battle to wear religious bangle at school

A Sikh teenager who was barred from school for wearing a religious bangle regarded as a ‘handcuff to God’ was discriminated against and should be allowed to return to classes, a judge has ruled.

Sarika Watkins-Singh was excluded after insisting she be allowed to wear the Kara – a bracelet worn by many Sikhs as a symbol of faith – despite her school’s ban on jewellery other than wristwatches and ear studs.

The 14-year-old, who had been a prefect at her school in South Wales, said tearfully that she was ‘overwhelmed’ by her High Court victory and described herself as a ‘proud Welsh Punjabi Sikh girl’.

The ruling means no school can stop a Sikh pupil from wearing the Kara to classes.

The High Court has previously refused to uphold a teenager’s right to wear a chastity ring at school as an expression of her Christian faith and a 13-year- old Roman Catholic girl’s right to wear a crucifix on a chain.

But Mr Justice Silber said today that the Kara fell into a ‘very exceptional’ category of religious jewellery and that Aberdare Girls’ School had discriminated against Sarika on the grounds of race and religion over her half-inch wide, plain steel bangle

While not a requirement of her religion, he accepted the Kara was of ‘exceptional importance’ to Sarika’s racial identity or religious belief.

The judge said there was ‘no evidence’ that the wearing of a crucifix was regarded in the same way as the wearing of the Kara.

‘In other words the school is not justified in having any fear that granting an exemption to the claimant to allow her to wear the Kara would create any further exemptions,’ he said.
However, it has been claimed that the judgment could lead to legal challenges, particularly relating to ‘unobtrusive’ items of religious significance.

Julia Thomas, head of legal services at the Children’s Legal Centre which supported Muslim schoolgirl Shabina Begum in her unsuccessful attempt to be allowed to wear the jilbab – head to toe religious dress – at school, said she thought it would anger those who had fought to wear religious items and failed.

‘There are devoted Catholics who would regard wearing a crucifix as just as important, and there was the recent case of the young lady wanting to wear a chastity ring.

‘I think there could be a little bit of a problem there with the judge interpreting religion and making an assumption which is possibly not justified.’

Sarika, her 38-year-old mother Sinita and stepfather Satnam Singh, welcomed the ruling.

‘I am overwhelmed by the outcome and it’s marvellous to know that the long journey I’ve been on has finally come to an end,’ said Sarika outside the court in London.

‘I’m so happy to know that no one else will go through what me and my family have gone through.’

Sarika, whose Welsh father, a Christian, died when she was a baby, was the only Sikh pupil at her 600-pupil school.

She was 13 and had worn the Kara for two years when a teacher asked her to remove it in April last year because it contravened uniform policy.

She requested an exemption but was told she could not attend classes wearing the bangle and was taught in seclusion then excluded. In February she joined Mountain Ash Comprehensive, which allows her to wear the Kara.

Her mother said that although it was a good school, the education of her daughter, an A and B-grade student, suffered as a result of the move.

She added it had been Sarika’s decision to fight the case.

Aberdare Girls’ School has agreed to take Sarika back in September, but her mother said her daughter needed time to think about that.

‘The hardest thing for me is she is going to look back at her schooldays and remember this, it will never go away,’ she said.

Mr Justice Silber said the Kara – narrower than many watch straps – was regarded universally by practising Sikhs as an important part of their religious observance.

An Aberdare school governor’s attitude that wearing it was roughly similar to displaying the Welsh flag in that it engendered emotion was ‘seriously erroneous’, the judge said.

But he stressed that the judgment was ‘fact-sensitive’ and that there was an ‘enormous difference’ between the ‘unostentatious’ Kara and a very noticeable garment such as the Muslim niqab or jilbab.

However, Anna Fairclough, legal officer for the human rights group Liberty who was representing Sarika, said the judgment could have an impact in potential future cases.

The governors and head of Aberdare Girls’ School said: ‘The decision to defend this action was taken after careful consideration by all concerned, and in good faith.

‘Should Sarika wish to return to school in September, in accordance with the judgment, she will be offered help and support to reintegrate her into the normal day-today life of the school.’

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