The admissions policy of the Jewish Free School may have to change following the June 25 ruling by a London appeals court.
The family of a 12-year-old boy sued the school after he was refused a place in the oversubscribed school because it did not recognize his mother's conversion. The mother converted to Judaism in a Progressive synagogue; the conversion is not recognized by the Office of the Chief Rabbi.
Faith schools under British law may discriminate on religious grounds, but the appeals court held that this case involved an ethnic test of Jewishness, which is unlawful.
The three appeals judges wrote that "This does not mean ... that no Jewish faith school can ever give preference to Jewish children. It means that, as one would expect, eligibility must depend on faith, however defined, and not on ethnicity."
The state-funded school gives preference to applicants whose "Jewish status" is confirmed by the United Synagogue, which requires that the mother be Jewish. The requirement does not exclude children from atheist, Catholic or Muslim families, as long as the mothers are Jewish.
The boy, who could be named only as M, has a Jewish father. His mother was Roman Catholic before she converted.
The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the umbrella organization of the Jewish communities in Britain, expressed concern about the ruling.
"The effect of this judgement is that Jewish schools will not be able to give preference to applicants on the basis of their faith (as permitted by law) applying the criteria that have always been used by Jewish religious authorities,“ the board said.
It also said that “Communal leaders from across the religious spectrum share this concern about the judgement and are considering the community’s next steps. These will begin, in the first instance, with an appeal to the House of Lords against the decision. The Board will of course continue to work closely with all the synagogue bodies, the JFS, all other Jewish schools and stakeholders to safeguard the best interests of British Jewry.”