Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, is to back the appeal of a school found guilty of discriminating against a student for wearing strict Islamic dress.
Shabina Begum, 16, claimed a victory for all Muslims in March when she won a landmark Court of Appeal ruling that Denbigh High School in Luton had unlawfully excluded her for flouting its uniform policy by wearing a jilbab, which leaves only the hands and face exposed.
Miss Begum said at the time of the ruling that the schools decision had been caused by an atmosphere in which Islam was a target for vilification in the name of the War on Terror.
The Court of Appeal said that Miss Begums human rights had been infringed because she had been denied the right to education and to manifest her religious beliefs.
It also criticised the Department for Education and Skills for failing to provide comprehensive and authoritative guidance on human rights issues.
The school is now appealing to the House of Lords. Sources in the department said that Ms Kelly’s intervention had nothing to do with particular forms of religious dress or with school uniforms. Requiring schools and other public bodies to become human rights experts would place them in the unfair position of becoming backroom lawyers, they said.
The department added that the determining factor in the judgment was how the school reached its decision, not the decision itself.
Ms Kelly’s intervention was based on the apparent burden that the ruling would place on local education authorities and school governing bodies in considering potential human rights claims.
The Muslim Council of Britain had welcomed the Court of Appeal ruling in Miss Begum’s favour. Sir Iqbal Sacranie, its secretary-general, said: “Those who choose to wear the jilbab and consider it to be part of the faith requirement for modest attire should be respected.”
But Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain, said: “This may be a victory for human rights but it is also a victory for fundamentalism.”
Almost 80 per cent of the 1,000 pupils at Denbigh High School, an oversubscribed comprehensive, are Muslim. Girls are permitted to wear the shalwar kameez, a sleeveless, smock–like dress worn over tapered trousers, and an approved headscarf.
Miss Begum, who was represented at the Court of Appeal by Cherie Booth, QC, believed that Islamic law required girls over the age of 13 to cover their bodies completely, apart from the face and hands.
The school refused to allow the jilbab in September 2002 and Miss Begum lost almost two years education before being accepted to another school that allowed her to wear it.