The case of a single Sikh pupil suspended in Aberdare, Wales, for wearing a religious wrist bangle is now likely to go to judicial review after the school concerned refused to adopt a more flexible dress policy and is seeking further legal advice.
Ms Sarika Watkins-Singh, aged 14, a pupil at Aberdare Girls’ School, has said she does not see why she should remove her kara bangle, which is a symbol within Sikhism that reminds its wearers to do good, because other pupils are allowed to wear earrings and certain kinds of costume jewellery.
The kara is one of five essential symbols of Sikh identity and belonging, and many schools in Birmingham, Southall and elsewhere have been willing to adapt dress codes to permit them. In turn, Sikhs have been prepared to compromise, especially over the kirpan (or ceremonial knife).
The teenager is being backed by both the Valleys Race Equality Council and by Liberty, the national human rights group, which is providing her with legal representation.
Today (19 November 2007) the school is being given 14 days to lift its ban or to face a High Court challenge to its decision.
Last week Sarika returned to the school after being temporarily excluded for a week. But she was further suspended after again refusing to remove the kara.
Wayne Lee, of the Valleys Race Equality Council, told the Western Mail on Friday: “Having met with the head teacher... the issue hasn’t been resolved. It looks like we have to go down the route of a judicial review. We have tried to resolve this matter by discussing it and arranging meetings (with the school), but they don’t seem very forthcoming."
He added: “Sarika is very upset and wants to go back into school. She’s a good student and she wants to see her friends, like any other 14-year-old."
Sarika’s mother Sanita Watkins-Singh added: “We are very, very disappointed, but the school has made their decision. That’s all I can say at the moment.”
She said her daughter’s friends had been told not to speak to her during the nine weeks she was taught in isolation before her suspension, and believes her education has suffered. “It’s a shame that it’s come to all this,” she said.
Liberty will argue that the school’s governing body is violating the Race Relations Act 1976, the Equality Act 2006 and the Human Rights Act 1998. A case which went to the House of Lords in 1983 involved a Sikh pupil being excluded from a school because of his insistence on wearing a turban.
The judges ruled that Sikhs were a religious group that was capable of being discriminated against under the Race Relations Act. Liberty says that further developments in equality and human rights law have made Sarika’s case even stronger.
Bruce Kent of the Coalition to Defend Cultural and Religious Freedom declared: "In today’s society we should applaud not punish young people who are committed to their faith. The small religious bangle that Sarika was wearing, known as the Kara, is an important part of the Sikh faith, and she should be allowed to wear it."
He continued: "The suspension of Sarika is an insult to all those who believe in the freedom to express religious conscience whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh or Christian or of no faith at all. I hope that the school governors and the head teacher will come to their senses and reinstate Sarika immediately and let her back on with her education.”
Sarika, who is of mixed Welsh/Punjabi origin, is the only Sikh at the school.
For nine weeks after the school noticed she was wearing the kara, Sarika was isolated throughout the day, including meals.
She has also been banned from the school’s physical education classes since May 2007, despite her offer to remove or cover the kara during PE.
Anna Fairclough, Liberty’s Legal Officer representing the Singhs, said: “The Governing Body of the school have ignored established race and equality protections and shamefully turned a young woman into a pariah by isolating her. Legal precedents established 25 years ago make clear that she should be allowed to wear the kara without being intimidated by the school.”
See also: Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow writes about the issue of religious dress and symbols in the workplace and at school - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/6279