A Sikh schoolgirl who was excluded from classes because she refused to remove a religious bracelet will take her fight to the High Court today in what could prove to be a pivotal case in the debate over religious expression in schools.
Aberdare School for Girls in south Wales insisted Sarika Singh, 14, take classes on her own for two months before excluding her in November for refusing to take off a silver bracelet known as a kara – one of the five symbols of the Sikh faith that baptised followers are expected to wear at all times. The symbols, known as the five Ks, also include kesh (uncut hair), kanga (wooden comb), kaccha (specially-designed underwear) and kirpan (strapped sword).
The school argued that its uniform policy forbade all forms of jewellery which include religious symbols, but her family and supporters, backed by civil liberties group Liberty, say the rules breach race relations and human rights laws which specifically protect Sikhs.
The judicial challenge, an attempt to force the school to readmit Sarika with her kara, is expected to last three days. Lawyers representing the schoolgirl, will argue the school’s actions contradict a previous ruling which enshrined the right for Sikh boys to wear turbans at school should they wish to. In the 1983 Mandla v Lee ruling, the House of Lords defined Sikhs as a race, not just a religious group, protected from discrimination under the Race Relations Act.
Sarika said she felt compelled to protect the rights of all Sikh children who wish to wear the symbols of their faith. “I never thought I would be forced by a school to choose between my religion and my education,” she said.
On Friday the Singh family delivered a petition to Downing Street, calling on Gordon Brown to intervene. The petition has been signed at 150 Sikh temples and more than 250 Sikh organisations, and more than 100 MPs have offered support.
Sarika started wearing the kara after a trip to India in 2005. It is one of the most popular Sikh symbols and encourages Sikhs to remember God in all their actions. Her parents say the school let her wear the bracelet for nearly two years and claim it was only when they complained about Sarika being bullied for being a Sikh that the school insisted she remove it. A spokesman for the school, which lists “tolerance of other races, religions” among its core values, said: “Our policy remains, as it has over the past six months, no comment.”
Battles of belief
*Shabina Begum, 16
Fought a legal battle in 2005 with Denbigh High School, Luton, over right to wear the jilbab, a loose fitting garment that covers the body. The law lords ruled in favour of the school, arguing it had “taken immense pains to devise a uniform policy which respected Muslim beliefs”.
*Aishah Azmi, 24
Classroom assistant was sacked for refusing to remove niqab (veil covering the face) in the presence of male colleagues at Headfield Church of England School in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. Lost unfair dismissal tribunal in 2006 but won £1,100 for victimisation.
*Nadia Eweida, 55
Christian check-in worker at Heathrow airport who went on unpaid leave after British Airways said she could not visibly wear a cross at work. She lost her appeal against the decision in 2006. The airline reviewed its uniform policy.