Can a school impose a uniform policy that does not take into account a student’s religious or cultural beliefs and practices? This is an issue currently being considered by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT).
Sagardeep Singh Arora, on behalf of his five-year-old son Sidhak Singh Arora, is challenging Melton Christian College’s decision not to enrol his son unless he agrees not to wear his patka, a Sikh head covering.
Despite being a Christian school, Melton Christian College accepts children of all faiths “as long as they don’t wear clothing that promotes other religions”. Its stated reason for its stance is it doesn’t “want children standing out as different”.
Protections for freedom of religion in Australia are notoriously weak. The Victorian Equal Opportunities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of a person’s religion, but also grants a wide exemption for schools in relation to uniforms. Section 42(1) states:
An educational authority may set and enforce reasonable standards of dress, appearance and behaviour for students.
This is qualified by Section 42(2), which states:
In relation to a school, without limiting the generality of what constitutes a reasonable standard of dress, appearance or behaviour, a standard must be taken to be reasonable if the educational authority administering the school has taken into account the views of the school community in setting the standard.
Earlier this year, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights commissioner, Kristen Hilton, commented on cases where schools were refusing to allow students to wear their hair in braids, even when done so for cultural reasons. She said:
There is a clear difference between students who have had their hair in braids for their entire life and whose hairstyle connects them to their culture, and students who have gotten braids or cornrows on an overseas holiday.
The principal of Melton Christian College, David Gleeson, has failed to draw a distinction between headwear worn for reasons of fashion and Sikh headwear worn for reasons of faith. He has been reported as drawing an analogy between Sidhak’s patka and a student who wished to wear a New Balance cap but was not allowed to do so.
The patka is a smaller version of the turban, or dastar, worn by most Sikh men. It is an important article of faith. It therefore forms an important part of a Sikh child’s identity. It is not simply a piece of clothing.
An analogy may also be drawn with a UK case in which a Muslim student challenged the decision of Denbigh High School to prohibit her from wearing a form of Islamic dress known as a jilbab. While the House of Lords was split on whether the school uniform policy had infringed the student’s religious freedoms, all agreed there were justifiable grounds for doing so.
Female Muslim students at Denbigh High School were permitted to wear the shalwar kameez, an alternative form of Islamic dress. The school had agreed on this accommodation for its Muslim students in consultation with the local community. The school’s aim in requiring compliance with its uniform policy was to promote social cohesion in a multicultural, multi-faith school.
On the one hand, the Denbigh High School case supports Melton Christian College’s position. Like Denbigh High, the stated aim of its uniform policy is inclusivity – ensuring individual students “don’t stand out”.
On the other hand, Denbigh High had already sought to accommodate the needs of its Muslim students in consultation with the local community – something it appears Melton Christian College has not done for its Sikh students.
It will be for the VCAT to determine whether the uniform policy of Melton Christian College falls within the exceptions granted by Section 42. However, whether the policy is legal is arguably not the point. In a religiously diverse, multicultural society, the attitude taken by the school is unhelpful.
The school’s principal is reported to have commented that:
I think one of the real strengths of the college is that we’re blind to … everyone is blind to religious affiliations.
This is similar to the colour-blind approach to racism. The difficulty with this approach is that it does not accommodate or acknowledge difference, it simply pretends it’s not there. Refusing to acknowledge Sidhak’s Sikh faith, and refusing to allow him to acknowledge it, does not mean it’s not there.
Similarly, the school’s claim that its policy is neutral is equally unhelpful.
The problem with neutrality is that it tends only to in fact be neutral for the majority. It is only those from minority groups that are asked to compromise. Equality does not always equal equity.
A policy requiring all students to take the stairs is neutral, yet has a negative impact on students who use a wheelchair. Similarly, a school uniform policy that prevents students from wearing any form of headwear is neutral – but it has a negative impact on Sikh, Muslim and Jewish students.
Providing some form of accommodation for Sidhak, and other students in a similar position, does not require Melton Christian College to abandon its uniform policy. The students can still be required to comply with all other aspects of it. The school could also place requirements on students’ religious dress in terms of colour and fit with the existing uniform.
Authors: Renae Barker, Lecturer in Law, University of Western Australia